Edible Monterey Bay

MEarth Digs in to Feed the Hungry During Pandemic

May 26, 2020 – MEarth’s curriculum of sustainability, gardening and cooking covers all kinds of educational territory. Now it’s learning how to redefine itself.

Normally the 10-acre property at Hilton Bialek Habitat in Carmel—with its grasslands, monarch butterfly and bird habitats, pond, outdoor amphitheater, LEED-certified culinary classroom, outdoor kitchen and extensive gardens—is a hive of activity, schooling Carmel Middle School students on everything from global eco-literacy to vermicomposting to organic pizza making.

But with in-person school suspended, MEarth is reinventing itself as a full-on farm—ramping up to grow three times as much fruit and vegetables as it has historically. While about a quarter of the grounds have been production-oriented in the past—with the rest dedicated to creature habitats, education and flowers—now it’s 100 percent go on growing food.

The vast majority of that haul goes to a Carmel High School student-led volunteer organization called This Club Saves Lives. Every week, in partnership with Food Bank for Monterey County, TCSL assembles 150 mixed bags of groceries with dry goods, household items and produce to distribute to local families and seniors in need.

MEarth board member and local landscape architect John Long of JVL Designs has helped spearhead the conversion project and estimates a 10-fold increase in the amount of produce that the nonprofit will be able to provide within a few weeks.

“People everywhere are doing what they can to help—distilleries are making hand sanitizer, plastic companies are producing screens—and we knew we have the facility and we have the people to grow more food,” he says. “Everyone on our board was immediately supportive, the community support has been incredible, and MEarth staff has kicked into overdrive. Everybody wanted to do it.”

MEarth executive director Ben Eichorn says the decision wasn’t all that difficult. “There wasn’t any conversation to have other than how can we do it best,” he says. “It was as simple as, ‘We don’t have school programs to run, and people need food, let’s connect the dots.’”

Property Manager Casey Amiel and Stewardship Educator Nancy Vielmas prepare for new plantings at MEarth

Vegetables being raised include lots of chard, kale, lettuce and celery, and an aggressive plant-out of squash, zucchini, bush beans, corn, beets, potatoes and more lettuces.

“We want to grow things that can really fill people up,” Eichorn says. “We want pounds of food in people’s homes and bellies.”

As part of the pandemic push, Steve Slokam of Gowan Seed donated seed and seedlings; Monterey Regional Waste Management District contributed soil and wood chips; Murphy’s Lumber pitched in lumber at cost for raised beds; The Rental Depot lent tools and Edible Monterey Bay, along with other companies and individuals, have donated money for the new garden boxes. (Donations are welcome via https://mearthcarmel.org/donate/.)

To raise additional funds, seasonal produce and starts are available for touch-free purchase for anyone who places an order online by midnight Thursday and stops by the garden between 10am-2pm Friday. More than 80 native plants are also available as part of MEarth Day annual plant sale that has been extended indefinitely.

A limited amount of seeds are for sale as well—as part of a wider project to select and bank seeds native to the southwest U.S. and northern Mexico, in collaboration with Monterey Public Library, which hopes to expand a seed lending program with its audience.

“We want to preserve cultural diversity and genetic diversity at the same time,” Eichorn says.

Response to the seed program has been enthusiastic as that of MEarth’s enhanced production effort.

“We’re super grateful the community has been so supportive,” Eichorn says. “It’s worked pretty well.”

And it’s only just getting started.

New planter boxes going in at the MEarth garden