When local promotoras - volunteer health workers - team with CalFresh Healthy Living, UC Cooperative Extension educators, magic happens in school gardens. Trained by Ceres Partnership for Healthy Families in Stanislaus County, promotoras encourage children to eat well by growing their own produce in school gardens.
In 2018, twenty promotoras were trained to implement the Powerful People curriculum designed to engage community leaders. This is a partnership with Cultiva La Salud and Ceres Partnership for Healthy Families with funding support from Stanislaus County Health Services Agency. After the training, the promotoras worked with Ceres Unified School District to create school gardens at five Ceres elementary schools where their children attended afterschool programs that host UC Cooperative Extension CalFresh Healthy Living, UC programs.
A key initiative CalFresh, Healthy Living, UC (CFHL) offers in counties throughout the state involves growing fresh produce and making it a regular part of family diets. TWIGS: Youth Gardening and Healthy Eating Curriculum is a UC Agriculture and Natural Resources comprehensive curriculum with 16 garden lessons and 15 nutrition lessons available for free download from its website.
CFHL has teamed with promotoras in Stanislaus County since 2018 to ignite local participation in teaching children that participate in garden clubs about plant and nutrition science, from building soil to creating sumptuous salads. Two years ago, a new UCCE community education specialist was assigned to the project, Rosalinda Ruiz. A native Spanish speaker and a mother herself, Ruiz quickly developed close relationships with the promotoras.
“She's not just their teacher. They look to her as a mentor and a friend,” said Jaci Westbrook, CalFresh Healthy Living, UC Community Education Supervisor for Stanislaus and Merced counties.
Ruiz is also a certified UC Master Gardener, having completed rigorous coursework in sustainable food gardening, pest management, irrigation practices and soil health. She realized the TWIGS curriculum would reach more students if she taught the promotoras how to implement the lessons at school sites.
“This empowered the promotoras to gain knowledge and gave them a different purpose,” Westbrook said. “They don't need to rely on others to offer activities. Working in pairs or small groups, they are reaching 100 to 135 elementary school students themselves.”
Ruiz marvels at the many benefits of food gardening.
“Learning about gardening is the best thing families can do to teach their kids about healthy foods,” Ruiz said. “To grow your own food is a way to get fresh, nutritious food in your home. When kids see the fruit and vegetables growing and they're part of it, they are more willing to try it out.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, promotoras instruction continued online using Zoom, which was completely new to them, and with WhatsApp, a familiar platform for promotoras to communicate among themselves.
The students are also getting virtual instruction. Promotoras have become proficient at Zoom and are offering simple garden lessons. Socially distanced in-person gardening lessons are also resuming to give children hands-on experience growing their own food.