Teaching the Teachers
Slide Ranch Program Puts Power into Practice
BY NAOMI STARKMAN
TIR housing at Slide Ranch
Photo: Susanna Frohman, SusannaFrohman.com
Photo: Courtesy Slide Ranch
Standing in front of Slide Ranch, an organic farm and environmental learning center perched high above Muir Beach, former U.S. Army Apache helicopter mechanic Angela Leyba is a world away from her tours of duty in Korea, Bosnia and Afghanistan.
Placed as a farming intern at Slide Ranch through Slide’s partnership with the San Francisco Foundation and the Farmer Veteran Coalition, a national organization with the mission to mobilize veterans to feed America, Leyba beams about the farm and its animals. (Her nickname was “the chicken whisperer.”)
“When I got to Slide Ranch, I thought, ‘Where have you been all my life?’” says the vet, who attended culinary school after the army.
When we met, her internship was drawing to a close. Leyba told me she now wants to help other vets have the same experience and also hopes to open a farm-to-table restaurant.
Leyba isn’t alone in expressing deep appreciation for Slide Ranch, which occupies 134 acres in West Marin. Since 1970, the non-profit has connected many people of all ages and throughout the Bay Area to sustainable farming, healthy eating and environmental stewardship.
In partnership with the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, its lands are open to the public year round for hiking and exploring. Slide Ranch also welcomes field trips and overnight campouts from nearly 100 Bay Area schools and community organizations, including Hamilton Family Center, one of the largest providers of shelter and support services to homeless families in San Francisco.
Says Debbie Wilber, community partnerships manager at Hamilton, “For some kids, going to Slide Ranch could really transform their lives. It can plant a seed in their hearts and that’s a big way we can help stop homelessness. If we can expose these kids to positive role models, including a natural experience, we have a greater chance of breaking the cycle.”
During the year, staff from the Ranch also make special visits to Hamilton’s San Francisco facilities to keep the connection between the two organizations growing. “When the teachers come back later in the year, the kids still have memories and stories about their time at Slide Ranch,” says Wilber. “Going there, for many of these children, has as a lasting impact. And these are the things we remember. We remember the time we went outside, not the time we sat in the classroom.”
Young people from all backgrounds, including many inner city kids without any prior exposure to farming or nature, come to Slide Ranch to experience the farm and its environs as a living classroom, learning about food and the environment. They tour the gardens, harvesting food for lunch; they collect eggs from the hens and milk the farm’s goats. Hikes down to the tide pools provide the perfect landscape for outdoor exploration and education. The students leave enriched and emboldened by the deepened relationship they create with each other and the earth.
“A lot of people assume that we’re a farm, but what we sell is an education,” Executive Director Marika Bergsund says. “That’s what we harvest: our connection to healthy food and interdependence of our eco-system.”
Of the 4,000 students who visit Slide Ranch each year, almost 60% are from low-income communities. Children with special needs, including physical and developmental disabilities, also participate in its programs. “Our goal is to build the next generation of environmental stewards through healthy food and environmental learning,” Bergsund says.
Not only is Slide Ranch teaching children lifelong lessons in ecology and sustainability, it’s also developing a whole new cadre of environmental educators who are carrying their training into schools and other programs after their time at Slide is up. Since the 1980s, its highly regarded teachers-in-residence (TIR) program offers seven teachers a year the opportunity to live and work at the ranch for 11 months. On average, 150 teachers from across the country apply for the seven slots in the 11-month positions, and an additional 100 apply for the three three-month summer positions needed during Slide Ranch’s summer camp season. These internships provide comprehensive training in farming and garden-based education in an ecological living environment and its graduates are emerging as sustainability leaders nationwide.
“Slide Ranch is just one of the most beautiful places and everyone who sets foot on the land is impacted by it,” says Corey Block, a 2002 TIR. “The buses stop at the top of the landing of the driveway, the kids get out of the bus, they’re perched high above the cliffs of the Pacific, and they have to walk down a steep, dusty road. It’s an assault on the senses of the urban kids as they walk through the garden, pull an egg from under a chicken, a carrot out of the ground or milk a goat.”
“It was eye-opening in every way and put me on the path Photo: Courtesy Slide Ranch TIR housing at Slide Ranch towards sustainable agriculture, with a focus on food justice, security and environmental issues,” Block says of her training there.
Now an urban farm coordinator at the Treasure Island Job Center, Block says her training at Slide Ranch helped her implement an integrated culinary program on a one-acre production farm, complete with chicken, bees, a living roof, solar panels and aquaponics. Her students expand their palates and go on to cook in some of the best restaurants in the Bay Area. Block is passionately committed to Slide Ranch (she now sits on its board of directors) and notes the diverse opportunities for the community to plug in through family campouts, harvest celebrations and coastal cleanup events.
One of Block’s fellow TIRs went on to co-found Sustaining Ourselves Locally, an Oakland-based volunteer-run organization focused on sustainability and social justice.
Jessica Sanchez grew up in Fremont and was a 2011 TIR at Slide Ranch. She says that she’s never lived a fuller life than when she was there.
“I loved to share my story with kids who grew up like I did, telling them where I came from and how I ended up there,” she says, sharing a powerful memory of discussing animal slaughter with a group of fourth graders. “We talked about life, breeding, death and how it’s a cycle,” she says. “How a flower dies, turns into compost, turns into soil and grows more flowers. By connecting it to the bigger picture, I think the kids came away understanding their place in life better.”
Sanchez is now at Groundwork Richmond, working with a high school youth crew planting trees in urban neighborhoods and converting empty lots into community parks. “I draw on my facilitation and teaching experience from my time at Slide Ranch all the time,” she says.
Another TIR, Xochi Battle, became interested in environmental education in college and one summer worked at Hidden Villa, a nonprofit organic farm in Los Altos Hills, which also offers community programs and educational courses for students. It was the first time she had thought about doing garden-based education and it put her on a path to Slide Ranch.
“When I learned it was on the coast and that it was an educational farm, I knew it would be my dream job,” Battle says, raving about her experience there as a TIR in 2012. “It was spectacular and life changing, I learned so much about gardening and animals and so many skills—how to put a roof on, how to use a power drill—and also how to work with kids from so many different backgrounds.”
Battle recounts a teachable moment, when she sat with inner city high school juniors who had brought spicy Cheetos and Mountain Dew for lunch. “It allowed a great gateway for a discussion on food choices,” she says. “I had them look at the ingredient list and we all agreed that if you can’t pronounce half of what’s in your food, you probably shouldn’t put it in your body.”
Photo: Courtesy Slide Ranch
Battle says she tried to inspire the students to make healthy choices and not shame them or make them feel bad. “It’s a balance,” she says. “I had to remember that a lot of them don’t have control over what they eat for lunch. They’re getting a free lunch for school or eating cheap junk food.”
She marvels at how the kids could begin to change in the course of just one day at Slide Ranch. One student told Battle, “When I sit here and stare at the ocean, I realize there’s a whole world outside of Oakland and I need to get out to explore and learn as much as can.”
Battle now works in San Francisco as a fulltime garden coordinator at Fairmount Elementary, in a position made possible by Education Outside, a San Francisco nonprofit that is transforming urban public education by bringing learning to life in outdoor classrooms. She teaches science-based education, maintains the school’s garden and promotes sustainability.
“All of my gardening and skill-building experience, I got at Slide Ranch,” says Battle. “I definitely learned as much as I taught.”
Another Education Outside corps member, Brooke McClelland, was a TIR at Slide Ranch in 2010. She now teaches at Alvarado Elementary School in San Francisco, a Spanish immersion school, which has brought its students to Slide Ranch since 2002.
McClelland praised the mentorship and support she received as a teacher there. “I learned how to teach hands-on, concrete, sensory experiences to kids, which they could then bring into their writing and science,” she says. “Getting the students to harvest and cook their own food and the feeling of picking up a warm chicken egg—all of those sensations are ideal for young students. In a lot of ways, we try and re-create this here in the City, by having a garden and worm bin, and have the students observe things that are alive in the green schoolyard.”
McClelland says the students are sponges for information and she uses much of what she learned at Slide Ranch to work with her urban students on daily basis. “I try to meet students where they are. Most don’t have a backyard, or a place to grow their own food, but we talk about how they can grow herbs in a pot on their windowsill,” she says.
Ben Henriquez first visited Slide Ranch when he was in the second grade at Buena Vista elementary school in San Francisco and still has a photo of himself milking a goat there. Years later, he returned to live there as a TIR in 2012.
“It planted a seed that got me to think about the natural world in a different way,” he says. “As a kid growing up in a very urban environment, going to a place like Slide Ranch gave me the experience to be more in touch with the earth.”
While at Slide Ranch, Henriquez most enjoyed working with the urban youth, especially the minority kids, and watching them have the same reactions that he felt he probably also had as a child.
“It was so nice to see the kids who needed it, to see a world that isn’t just a big grid, where everything is determined by property,” he explains. “Seeing kids who are socialized to walk on the sidewalk, who don’t know how to walk where there isn’t a path. It’s amazing to see kids start to get comfortable with being outside that and realize that the world where they live isn’t necessarily ‘real,’ that the urban world isn’t ‘natural.’”
Henriquez now works as a science and math instructor for an after-school program in Oakland and says that what he learned at Slide Ranch has been critical to his teaching. “The way our system has been teaching kids doesn’t work for every kid, because there are visual, auditory and tactile learners,” he says. “Experiences are as powerful as ideas and sometimes much more transformative. The memory of feeling can be just as powerful as the idea itself.”
He explains how an experience at Slide Ranch can help provide a natural-world context for children for life.
“It’s not abstract. They see it in action. Living in an urban environment, you don’t know where your food or water comes from. Seeing the natural world near theirs, later on, kids will realize that these problems are ours, too. Seeing kids starting to connecting those dots, that even adults have a hard time doing, was the most rewarding part of experience.”
Slide Ranch and its programs demonstrate that a small seed planted can become an even healthier plant, if tended to in the right garden. And it’s doing so by growing children and teachers alike, along its rocky cliffs in Marin.
Naomi Starkman is a good-food advocate and a founder and editor-in-chief of CivilEats.com, a daily news source for critical thought about the American food system. She is a food policy consultant to Consumers Union and others. Naomi works with various clients on food policy and advocacy and is an avid organic gardener, having worked on several farms.