Backyard Growers, FoodCorps’ local site partner in Gloucester, MA, is a small but rapidly growing community organization that provides support and resources to school, community and backyard gardeners to establish vegetable gardens and become life-long gardeners. It has only three permanent staff and four AmeriCorps members, including one from FoodCorps.
When that FoodCorps service member, Amy, arrived this September, she walked into the Backyard Growers office, past rows of children’s cooking supplies and walls filled with taste-test posters, and sat down with her supervisor to do some work planning for the year. This seemingly normal beginning was unique, because her supervisor, Meghan, is the previous FoodCorps service member.
And Meghan’s not the only former service member on this very small staff. There’s also Anna!
Now the Community Programs Manager, Anna began at Backyard Growers in 2013, when BYG was spearheaded single-handedly by founder and executive director Lara Lepionka. Together, they piloted the first year of what is now known as the Salad Days/Fall Harvest Days program, a district-wide school garden experience in which 1,300 elementary school students plant, harvest, and taste two crops of school garden vegetables each year. Anna also worked closely with Lara to coordinate the Backyard Garden program, providing low-to moderate income families with the training and resources to start their own vegetable gardens.
When Anna finished her service, she moved back to her hometown of Philadelphia and Meghan entered as the second FoodCorps service member. Over the next two years, Meghan built up the School Garden Program to include a 6th grade popcorn project and curriculum, a middle school after-school program, and programs at the preschool and high school in addition to existing programs. Meghan also worked on expanding local food initiatives in Gloucester Public Schools with tasting events to move toward increasing the fresh, local food on the menu.
By 2016, in part because of the increased capacity their FoodCorps service members provided, Backyard Growers had expanded their programs to such an extent that they had drawn in more support through two MassLIFT-AmeriCorps service members, moved into an office of their own, and began to see a need for additional full-time staff support. It was at this time that Lara decided to create two new staff positions. For these positions, she had two people in mind: Anna and Meghan.
Having three generations of FoodCorps service members working on our programs is a huge advantage for the organization and the schools it serves. Service members can be fundamental in expanding the capacity of a small organization like Backyard Growers. However, it can also be confusing to students and community members when a new person cycles in and out of a role each year. Community relationships lay the foundation of everything we do. So when a kitchen manager sees Amy walk into a kitchen with the familiar face of Meghan right behind her, she feels comfortable joking about past taste tests, saying “try whatever you want, girlfriend,” knowing that while it’s Amy’s first taste test, she has the support of two generations of FoodCorps alumni. Just as it is meaningful for Anna and Meghan to both come to a taste test, encouraging students they’ve taught over the past 3 years to taste whatever delicious, local food Amy is handing out.
It’s also an incredible mentorship and training opportunity for Amy. She is able to accomplish more and get it done faster because she has a a supervisor who can help her piece together all the details and histories of dozens of school gardens and partnerships in Gloucester, When working with Amy, Meghan can use her two years experience of dealing with the more challenging pieces of the school programs and the ups and downs of service, to inform her leadership and management with Amy.
Understanding how FoodCorps alumni have shaped and continue to shape our institutional memory sounds like fancy nonprofit jargon, but it is really quite simple. When Meghan asks Amy to create a local food tasting for September, Amy can look at dozens of recipes tried and tested with BYG students and Meghan can guide her toward kitchen managers that will take on the tasting with enthusiasm. When Amy sets up all the equipment for Salad Days, there are guides and trainings to address issues like food safety and spacial flow of a cafeteria. But best of all, when Amy walks into a school, she’s waved on through because, in the words of a school secretary, “you’ve got the shirt, you’re good.”