Today is Earth Day, 2022. We have been commemorating a call to environmental action for 52 years. Many things have changed (can anyone say hybrid vehicles and clean energy?), yet we are in a far more precarious environmental place than we were all those many years ago. There is more urgency in everything we do to combat climate change. The CEO of AmeriCorps issued a press release today and framed our current climate moment like this:
"Now is the time to improve parks and public lands, increase energy efficiency, strengthen rural
and urban economies, expand opportunity for young people and veterans and create the next
generation of conservation and climate resilience leaders."
I might tweak the above slightly to include more local food production (which, arguably, will strengthen all local economies), but will also better sustain local communities. That next generation of leaders needs to be well nourished!
The VISTA crew here in Fairbanks today built four hydroponic grow towers for distribution to our local Fire and Public Works Departments. With a little seedling help to get them started, these departments will be able to grow fresh herbs and greens right at their locations year-round. I cannot wait to see how they use their fresh produce ... and how thrilled they will be in the dead of the next Fairbanks winter to be able to just walk to a grow tower on site and pick fresh lettuce!
It was a fun yet meaningful day (see photos below). I also provide a shout out to the Boys & Girls Club of Fairbanks for hosting a second tower building session at the club.
We recently collaborated with the Fairbanks Soil & Water Conservation District to help build a dozen hydroponic grow towers for various sites throughout Fairbanks. With the bulk of the build occurring at the Boys & Girls Club of Fairbanks (we will finish them next Monday), and with a few additional non-profit community members rounding out the build team, not only did we bond over power tools, but created connections that will last far beyond the tower build. Soil & Water provided the basil seedlings shown below; the completed tower is now sitting in the VISTA office! I am so thrilled that Timea, our VISTA at United Way of Tanana Valley, picked the first basil leaves just yesterday for her own cooking use. We look forward to many more VISTAs getting their greens and herbs fix right here in our office.
Daniela, Julia, Julia (!), and Nathanael will serve Fairbanks from August 16, 2021 - August 15, 2022. As full year VISTAs, they will build the capacity of their individual organizations through indirect service, and in Daniela's case, for the very first time at her site (trailblazer, she). We're excited to welcome them to the team and see the impact they have in the coming year!
Tessa served at the Fairbanks Soil and Water Conservation District from August 31, 2020, until August 30, 2021. Throughout the year, Tessa was able to immerse herself in FSWCD outreach events, food policy groups, and natural resources education. She recruited a community-led advisory council, pursued integral partnerships with the Fairbanks Community Food Bank, successfully wrote a grant to support Community Gardens in Fairbanks, and conducted soil samples and soil health workshops at multiple gardens throughout the summer. Tessa will continue to support food security in Fairbanks through her work on an urban agriculture conservation grant as a Fairbanks Soil and Water Conservation District employee.
Tessa was a complete dream of a VISTA. She started with a quarantined two weeks but worked and researched the whole time. When she started we just learned that we received the large USDA grant and she was raring to go with ideas and setting the tone for the grant process. She dove right into the project head first and was my right hand help throughout the whole process of getting everything set up and structured. I don't think I could have survived the process without her help. She was always flexible, working through the hills and valleys, sometimes deep valleys, of this enormous project with a smile on her face the whole time. Her professionalism and super attitude was noted by so many that we worked and connected with during her service. She was always willing to help and learn new skills at the office. She was an integral part of our FSWCD team all year. I'm so happy that she chose us and we are so happy to have been a part of her VISTA experience. She is truly amazing."
By: Tessa Holmes, FSWCD 2020-2021
Interior Alaska is one of the most expensive places to live in the nation, with households spending an average of 4% more of their income on food than households elsewhere in the nation(1). 12.5% of borough residents are classified as food insecure and 8.1% of residents live below the poverty level(2). 75% of children qualify for free and reduced-price school meals(3). My VISTA project at the Fairbanks Soil & Water Conservation District (FSWCD) aims to combat cycles of poverty and food insecurity by creating a year-round source of local greens while also providing agricultural job training opportunities in both indoor and conventional farming methods.
The AmeriCorps VISTA project goals and tasks at FSWCD have evolved through time. Over two years ago, Melissa Sikes, the Natural Resource Education Specialist and VISTA supervisor at FSWCD began discussing a community farm project with local stakeholders. Inspired by an indoor hydroponic farm in Anchorage that employs and supports at-risk youth, Melissa sought to connect key community players who would support the creation of a hydroponic farm in the Fairbanks community. The previous VISTA (June 2019-20) recruited stakeholders and conducted research on how to viably fund the creation of a hydroponic farm. Over their service year, the previous VISTA set me up for success by finalizing a team of representatives from community organizations that include the Fairbanks Community Food Bank, Alaska 4-H, and a for-profit farm specializing in indoor growing technologies. In collaboration with these organizations, multiple grant applications were submitted and the scope of the project was adjusted slightly based on funding opportunities. A large part of the first VISTA’s work on this project was to determine the viability and scale of the project based on different funding opportunities.
As if the stars aligned with the AmeriCorps VISTA calendar, about a week before I started my service, FSWCD got word that their grant application for the USDA NIFA(4) Community Food Project was accepted. Beginning my service year in September 2020, I have been able to directly and tangibly continue the work of the VISTA before me. Beginning with our project partners, I have created contracts, organized and implemented regular project meetings, collaborated on local radio and television advertisements, and will be creating and managing a website and social media presence for the Community Farm Project. In December, we hosted a
Community Input Meeting with 33 participants and are now recruiting a community-led Advisory Council.
Thus far, the most meaningful part of my service has been telling the community about the farm project, gauging their feedback, and finding ways to infuse the project with their ideas. In order for the indoor farm to succeed and thrive, the project needs to bring value to Fairbanks community members so they accept and support it long-term. Thus, a big focus of my VISTA year is to tailor our program’s classes and workshops to reflect community input and respond to community need. The ideation, planning, and fundraising of the previous VISTA has provided me with clear direction and set me up for success in my VISTA service. Following my year, a third VISTA will support the Community Farm Project as it grows into a fully-operational farm, sustaining funding and community support along the way.
Photos courtesy of Yukon Farms, the AFFECT Project's hydroponic farm collaborator.
Mikayla, Tessa, Hal, Sol, Nicole, and Stephen will serve Fairbanks from August 31, 2020 - August 30, 2021. Year-long VISTAs perform indirect service focusing on capacity building. Stay tuned for updates as their year progresses!
Leah was an amazing addition to our team at FSWCD and the Fairbanks community. We chose Leah for this position because of her impressive academic background in economics and community service. She seamlessly became part of FSWCD staff, the Fairbanks community, and the VISTA community. Her dedication to the indoor community farm project began even before her first day of service and continued to be impressive in the successive months. As part of her service year, she assisted us with gathering the necessary support within the community by connecting with a wide variety of organizations. She was a part of a number of outreach events throughout her year in Fairbanks, helping with our information table at the Chena Hot Springs Energy Fair as well as a local food event at the Tanana Valley State Fair. She presented about her project to the local City Assembly, spoken briefly at the Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce weekly meeting, and given information and updates at the city Housing and Homeless Coalition meetings. She assisted with the planning and leadership of our local Interior Alaska Food Network (IAFN), our local food policy group. Every chance she had to represent and share her work she jumped at without question. Her confidence and demeanor was excellent, and her representation of Fairbanks Soil and Water Conservation District was consistently impressive. She wrote at least two very large grant proposals during her time with FSWCD and her ability to collaborate with a large group of agencies and folks guided the process with ease. Her dedication to ensuring the positive outcome of her projects is evidence of her high standard of professionalism. We are so happy she chose FSWCD for her VISTA service. We know she will go on to do great things with her career and will miss her smile and laughter terribly."
Leah, thank you for your service to our community. You helped our local program with your input, positivity and dedication. We wish you the absolute best in your future and know you will be successful in anything you do!