It's a bountiful life: Everyone's an eater
Nov./Dec. 2016 California Bountiful magazine
Interview by Barbara Arciero
Photos courtesy of Students for Eco-Education and Agriculture
Nonprofit educator helps fill the food literacy gap
As founder of Students for Eco-Education and Agriculture (SEEAG), Mary Maranville, center, helps Ventura County children make the connection between the farmland around them and the food on their tables.
For Mary Maranville, it's all about the kids—and, well, the adults, too. Students for Eco-Education and Agriculture, the nonprofit program Maranville founded in 2008, has been so successful in educating Ventura County schoolchildren about the importance of agriculture that she's expanded its reach.
What does SEEAG do?
We teach schoolchildren about the farm origins of their food and connect them to the farms in their backyard by providing free field trips. Most of the students we see are in third grade.
How does the day begin?
We start by teaching the kids what agriculture is, because they often don't know. We tell them what the word means, and the first question we ask is, "Who's connected to agriculture?" They might say, "My grandparents worked here" or "My uncle works there," and we say, "Well, that's great." Then we ask, "Who here eats?" They all laugh and giggle and say, "We eat." "I like food!" If you eat, you're connected to agriculture.
What else happens during the classroom presentation?
We teach the basics and build from there—the parts of the plant and their functions—then we connect the kids' favorite foods back to plants. We do plant identification and fruit and veggie identification. From there, we talk about the top crops grown in their backyard.
By backyard, do you mean Ventura County farms?
Yes. We teach them that strawberries grow in their backyard, and raspberries, avocados, lemons and tomatoes. We're trying to wrap their brain around the fact that not only do these grow in their backyard, but that farmers here grow enough crops that they ship to 54 different countries.
What happens on the field trip?
The kids get to test soil, pick fruit, go on bug hunts and look for beneficial insects and learn about biological control. They get to plant seeds. It's very interactive.
What motivated you to start SEEAG?
I was raised on a dairy farm in upstate New York, and my inspiration comes from the fact that I wish an educator had come to my school to explain to me and my classmates how important local agriculture and my father's work was to the nation. Students are taught math, English and science in school, but there is not a national food literacy curriculum.
You have a program for older students and you also introduced Ventura County Farm Day to the public in 2013. What is that?
Farm Day is over 20 farms that hold free open house tours and have activities on their farm, all in one day. This year, it's Nov. 5. People can go to www.venturacountyfarmday.com and customize their farm adventure.
While SEEAG's focus is on educating schoolchildren about agriculture, its annual Ventura County Farm Day gives the whole community an opportunity to visit farms and ranches. A barbecue tops off the day.
What resources do you use from the California Foundation for Agriculture in the Classroom?
One of their lessons that I really love is about interviewing a farmer. That's one of the things we tell the kids, is to go out and try to meet a farmer, whether it's at a farmers market or elsewhere. The lesson plan includes interview questions.
How does SEEAG meet a need in the community?
It helps kids understand and appreciate the farmers that grow our food. I think that they're one of the most underappreciated people in the country—when you think that less than 1 percent of the population grows the food for the other 99 percent. We're trying to get kids to understand and appreciate the ag workforce, the harvesters, and I think we're doing that, little bit by little bit.
What's a fact about the agricultural workforce that surprises most people?
The amount of hands that make it possible for us to have all the food that's in our grocery stores every single day. I think the average person has no idea of the systems involved…. Agriculture is not the abundance of nature; it's the abundance of a lot of hard work.
What's next for SEEAG?
A mobile classroom. We're bringing more and more crops into the classroom when we introduce the kids to agriculture, and it would be really nice if we could just pull up and have this gorgeous decaled mobile classroom. We're working on it.