In January I took some time to interview a handful of community leaders working in the realm of food security and urban agriculture in Vancouver, Seattle, and Tuscon. My hope was to learn as much as I could about engaging more people and developing mentorship programs – two things that I’m hoping to focus on at the Edible Garden Project (EGP) over the next couple of years.
The conversations were fruitful, and I’m happy to start sharing what I learned in a series of blog posts, called Sprouting Ideas, over the next month or so! Most interviews were less then an hour, and started with a broad question. Most of them gave me more questions to pursue then answers, but all of them have contributed to developing a clearer sense of how a garden mentorship program could work at the EGP, and new ideas on how to reach a wider diversity of people in our community.
I’ll start off with Charlene Ponto of Simon Fraser University’s Local Food Project.
My Question: What have you discovered most successful in engaging with post-secondary students on food issues?
Charlene attributes the success of the SFU Local Food Project’s ability to engage with the campus community to a number of factors: a strong Advisory Committee, streamlined volunteer recruitment, a well subscribed mailing list, a focus on building relationships, and offering specific skill development opportunities.
The Advisory Committee is made up of campus stakeholders including staff, faculty, community representatives, and students. Although they provide a strong network for the organization to gain insight from, bringing them together also developed community buy in – critical for the project’s success.
Developing relationships with Professors willing to send out information on events and volunteer opportunities to their students extended the reach of the organization to those that may not normally stop at an information booth or reach out to get involved.
Students are very busy people, so I was interested to learn how they made volunteering an appealing activity for students already bogged down by study and work. I learned that the student orientations and club days held at the beginning of each semester are great ways to show your organization off to hundreds of students. Offering very specific volunteer job descriptions including time slots, responsibilities, skills gained, and an offer of a reference letter were also useful. She explained that many students just know they want to help, but may not know exactly what they want to do, so the more specific you are in volunteer job descriptions the better. Making it clear what a student gets out of the time they spend is also important, and makes it easier for students to understand the connection between your volunteer opportunities and valuable work experience they could gain. Charlene also added that relationship building is critical to maintaining volunteers; volunteering is about feeling connected and making friends as much as it is about giving back to the community.
The SFU Local Food Project runs three core programs open to staff, faculty, students at SFU: the Harvest Box, the Pocket Farmers Market, and a skills training program. I was curious to know which programs appealed most to students. Not surprisingly, the skills training program was incredibly popular! The workshops were offered by donation to ensure they were as accessible as possible to people on a tight budget. Students loved being able to learn how to start a vegetable garden and compost with worms – concrete steps they could take home to “green” their lives.
I was also curious to know what sort of students usually got involved with the SFU Local Food Project. I discovered that initially participation had been largely middle class environment students. However, that has changed considerably over the past few years. The coordinators started to make a greater effort to appeal to a larger crowd by adding a social justice lens and commentary to their projects and communications. Attending international student orientations and events was also helpful. Over time new people got involved and would bring their friends, and this has simply grown.
My main take-aways: bring a diverse group of stakeholders together to develop community buy-in, focus on relationship building to engage volunteers and strengthen networks, be explicit about what you have to offer and the skills you can develop, use a broad lens to analyze food issues that includes social justice, the economy, and the environment to appeal to a diverse range of people.
Since my chat with Charlene, I’ve revamped the EGP Volunteer Job Descriptions and started reaching out to the Capilano University community. So far we’ve got more students involved in the EGP then ever before! Most have them have been drawn to the programs where they can get hands on learning experiences like at Group Gardening sessions or by joining a Garden Working Group. It’s been great to have their energy and enthusiasm, and I’m looking forward to watching inter-generational relationships develop over the growing season – maybe I won’t have to do much to get more mentorship programming happening!
– Emily Jubenvill, Volunteer Coordinator