A student logs into school outside at the Live Earth Farm

For Farm Discovery–a nonprofit that connects our community’s youth to a deeper understanding of agriculture, food, and the environment–2020 was set to be their biggest season yet. They expected to have 3,000 kids at their Live Earth Farm in Pajaro Valley that year between school field trips and their youth camp programs where kids learn farming skills, nutritional skills, and environmental stewardship and how these are delicately intertwined. Then, COVID hit.

Farm Discovery Executive Director, Jessica Ridgeway brings a crate of produce out of a
cooler at Live Earth Farm in Watsonville.

Farm Discovery Reorganizes During Pandemic
Farm Discovery, who generally hires from their local community and often hires alums of their programs, committed to keeping all of their employees and acquired PPP funding to make sure they could keep everyone on staff. Next, they developed a program with the food bank delivering the excess from their harvests to get food to those most at risk during the pandemic. Later in the pandemic, when we had all learned more about how to stay safe with masks, social distancing and limiting interaction to the outdoors, the Farm turned to helping students again.

Turning the Kitchen into a Schoolhouse
“Kids were getting desperate to be together again. We saw this great need for care – something for kids to do and low-risk their parents could leave them to learn,” says Jessica Ridgeway, Executive Director of Farm Discovery. Jessica and her team remodeled their summer program making it possible for kids to be together and make friends while staying in a small, safe pod.

Farm Discovery connects kids with the environment and agriculture and part of that is learning how
to nourish their bodies with fresh produce and hands-on experience with cooking and
food preparation. They cook with what they harvest and eat what they cook.

When the school year started up again, Farm Discovery began a distance learning support program and their kitchen became a schoolhouse. Three days a week, 14 kids came to school at Live Earth Farm so their parents could go to work. Jessica recounts one parent repeatedly telling them that they had saved her life because she’s a single mom, had to work, and couldn’t help her child school from home.

When they aren’t in the kitchen-turned-schoolhouse, students do some of their schoolwork outdoors.

There was a considerable problem though–a lack of an adequate internet connection at the Farm. Like many rural places in our county, internet access is a persistent issue and one more glaringly pronounced as we had to school and work from home during the pandemic. Jessica herself lives remotely and she worried about the students’ ability to participate in their classes: “It’s so frustrating and it just adds one more barrier to learning to have their teacher pausing, and connection drops can really distract the students. Connection can really impact how to engage kids.”

Bringing Internet Access to Farm Discovery
That’s when Driscoll’s stepped in with funding for infrastructure and connected Farm Discovery with Cruzio Internet and the Equal Access Santa Cruz County program. A significant portion of Driscoll’s charitable giving has been dedicated to fostering a safe, healthy, and stimulating environment for children and young adults in the communities where they live and grow. In 2020 alone, they deployed $4M in COVID-relief funds across their growing communities around the world to help alleviate some of the community’s biggest challenges during the pandemic.

Driscoll’s recognized that the County’s challenges evolved beyond food security to educational equity as seen in the Pajaro Valley. “In addition to reliable internet access, we were seeing that there was an urgent need for kids to have a safe space to convene and receive in-person learning support which is why we partnered with Cruzio and Farm Discovery. We were happy to see that the children who needed in-person distance learning support the most were able to receive that and more at Farm Discovery during one of the most difficult times,” said Nishan Moutafian, Driscoll’s Northern California District Manager.

Driscoll’s has helped fund multiple Equal Access Santa Cruz County projects during the pandemic.
Equal Access Santa Cruz is a local initiative to close the digital divide in Santa Cruz County. The
partnership between Cruzio Internet and Community Foundation Santa Cruz County has connected over
300 families in need in the last year.

“We’re delighted to partner with Driscoll’s to improve internet connectivity at Farm Discovery”, says James Hackett, Cruzio’s Director of Business Development. “As a local internet service provider, Cruzio has a unique perspective on the needs of our community and the ability to build out sustainable internet infrastructure for those who need it most. But partnerships are essential to do the work and that’s why we are so grateful to Driscoll’s for their support.” Equal Access Santa Cruz is a partnership between Cruzio Internet and Community Foundation Santa Cruz County along with many other community partners to bridge the digital divide in Santa Cruz County and bring internet to unconnected residents and better infrastructure in underserved areas. “The internet was really bad out here. The connection never met the need. Once we got funding from Driscoll’s and connected to Cruzio, it only took about 2 months from start to end. It’s amazing it could happen so quickly after being a problem for so long,” said Jessica.

Cruzio field tech, Jay, installs a radio at Farm Discovery.

As soon as we knew about it, making sure Farm Discovery got connected was a priority for us at Cruzio. Not only is our Equal Access Santa Cruz program aimed at helping students and closing the digital divide, we also deeply respected Farm Discovery’s response to the pandemic which mirrored our own. They kept employees in their jobs, turned to our community to provide immediate assistance, and restructured in a time of crisis to be there for the community through the long haul of the pandemic and beyond.

A student enjoys class from the treehouse. Now that there’s a better internet connection
at Farm Discovery, it’s easier for kids to be full participants in their online schooling.

Looking back and what’s next
Reflecting on the pandemic and the things everyone did to come together, Jessica says, “People really dropped everything to get stuff done. We sometimes get so bogged down in the red tape of things, but we made things work to support people.” At Cruzio we agree. The pandemic brought a huge shift in how we work and opened up the possibility of community effort to make necessities–like internet access and programs for students and families–possible. We’re making huge improvements in ways that were never possible before.

It’s still touch and go what the remainder of this year will look like for Farm Discovery while schools figure out how to coordinate students and if field trips will be possible in the new school year. But overall, things are looking up and Farm Discovery has great plans for the next year such as hiring more local teens and staff and making their programs bigger. Jessica thanks a generous community that has been supportive throughout the pandemic for making this possible.