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Seed to Supper Connects Students with the Community

Cornell students lead a webinar with Cornell Cooperative Extension facilitators in Tioga, Broome, and Erie counties. Photo by Craig Cramer / College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

By the time Andrew Pochedly came to Cornell last fall to pursue a Master of Professional Studies degree in horticulture, he already had a great deal of professional experience under his belt. As a Peace Corps volunteer, he helped to develop sustainable agriculture practices in West Africa. He worked with the Cleveland Botanical Garden’s Green Corps program, which helps teenagers build academic, workplace and life skills by immersing them in urban agriculture and business.

But when he came to Cornell and took horticulture senior lecturer Marcia Eames-Sheavly’s Seed to Supper two-semester course sequence, he realized there was a deeper level of community building and engagement that he had not tapped when he was in the field.

“I have the luxury of being able to look back,” Pochedly said. “I see lessons I learned in this class that I could have applied in my career. Going forward, I’ll take those with me.”

Eames-Sheavly’s course is part of a statewide Seed to Supper initiative that connects Cornell Cooperative Extension offices with local food banks and volunteer educators who teach adults on a limited budget how to garden and grow their own food, thereby creating more food-secure communities.

Cornell students play a key role in this effort by introducing the garden educators, or facilitators, to the gardening curriculum.

“I love working with people and I love working with plants, and this is a class that allows you to experience both of those things,” Pochedly said.

In the fall Seed to Supper course, students become well-versed in basic gardening skills, such as weeding and composting, and learn the fundamentals of community building, how to lead workshops, ethical engagement, and how to respectfully interact with diverse audiences.

In the spring semester, they host webinars in which they connect with extension facilitators in Tioga, Broome, and Erie counties. The students show reflective videos and discuss the gardening curriculum with the facilitators while also exploring the sensitivities of providing outreach to underserved communities. The facilitators connect with members of their own communities – particularly those who are food insecure – to help them grow fresh, nutritious produce.

“The gardening can be the easy part,” Eames-Sheavly said. “Working in community is usually the complex piece. We have such a long history embedded in our ethos that we know what people need. It’s deep in the veins of the university. …But what is it to work with people and find out what they really need?”

The Seed to Supper program is modeled on an Oregon Food Bank program launched in 2007 that is in partnership with a number of organizations, including Oregon State University’s Extension Master Gardener Program.

New York State Seed to Supper has been integrated into Cornell Cooperative Extension offices in 10 counties, including Wayne, Putnam, Oneida, Onondaga, Monroe, Cortland, and Tompkins.

Cornell students’ collaborations with facilitators via long-distance video-conferencing technology is an essential component of the course because it allows the students to step out of their comfort zones and engage with communities beyond Ithaca, Eames-Sheavly said.

“Next year, we are aiming for an in-person facilitation experience, to continue to learn about ideal formats,” she said.

Equally essential is the energy and creativity students bring to the process, according to Lori Brewer, a senior extension associate who oversees the Seed to Supper initiative in New York state.

“They don’t see the barriers,” Brewer said. “They’re like, ‘Why can’t we just do that?’ Well, because we didn’t think of it. They are much more open to seeing the landscape in a different, fresh way.”

The Seed to Supper course sequence was launched last year through an Engaged Curriculum Grant. Planning for the project took place during a community-partner retreat supported by a College of Agriculture and Life Sciences diversity grant. The course currently has 11 students, primarily undergraduates from fields including plant science, urban and regional planning, natural resources, development sociology, and international agriculture and development.

As the first year of Seed to Supper draws to a close, Pochedly hopes the next iteration of the course draws students from an even greater range of disciplines.

“It can really benefit anyone who is interested in working with community and making an impact in that community,” he said.

This article also appeared in the Cornell Chronicle.