A New Generation of Ecological Activists and Community Leaders Train at CSUN’s Institute for Sustainability

The Agroecology, Farming and Food Pathways program is open to both community members and CSUN students. Photo by Lee Cho

The Agroecology, Farming and Food Pathways program is open to both community members and CSUN students. Photo by Lee Cho


The seed of a calling grew inside Karen Klein — she wanted to make a difference in her community. Her new nonprofit, Grow Gather Give, combats food insecurity by picking fruit from scores of trees in the yards of San Fernando Valley residents, and then donates the food to local pantries in the same neighborhoods.

Klein ’08 (Communication Studies), a CSUN alumna who lives near campus and regularly strolls by the Institute for Sustainability’s Garden, connected with Natale Zappia, the institute’s director, and shared the mission of her new venture. Zappia suggested she take part in an Institute program called Agroecology, Farming & Food Pathways (AFFP), which helps community members and students explore careers in agriculture, and encourages participants to start small garden or farm projects in their own communities.

Thanks to the Institute’s collaboration with the Multinational Exchange for Sustainable Agriculture (MESA) — a nonprofit that focuses on international cultural exchanges between farmers — the Agroecology, Farming & Food Pathways program is able to connect its participants with a big network of agricultural professionals.

Klein made vital connections with the program’s weekly speakers, representing different segments of the local grower community, including leaders of organizations feeding those in need. In just a few months, she’d helped get 10,000 pounds of citrus and other fresh produce stocked in local food pantries.

“[The program] gave me a network in a space I was very new to,” Klein said. “It set everything up and very quickly. I felt rooted – pun intended. It would’ve taken me much longer to build those connections [on my own].”

CSUN’s Institute for Sustainability offers the Agroecology, Farming & Food Pathways program for free to any student or community member who wants to learn more about sustainable agroecology and network with people who have those same interests.

“The main goal is to train our students and community to engage in, learn about and perhaps start their own urban farm,” Zappia said. “A lot of it is about food, but it’s also about reimagining environments and trying to reimagine the Valley as this ecological, bountiful place.”

Being able to grow their own food empowers the community while making the city more resilient toward climate change, Zappia said.

“I signed up for the course because I wanted to learn more about farming, and because I dream of seeing a bigger community garden flourish in my neighborhood,” said CSUN student Eduardo Martinez, who was part of the program’s first cohort last fall.

The program was conceived to offer underserved communities, primarily in the Valley, access to the same resources that experienced farmers use.

“I would like to use this knowledge to be able to rely less on supermarkets and become more self-sustainable,” said Mabel Trigueros, a program fellow and representative who got her foot in the door thanks to the program and is currently working as the Institute Garden coordinator.

The program takes place in three stages. The first consists of an online class held once a week for about three months, where participants learn the basics of farming and agroecology, working toward a certificate in applied agroecology upon completion of the course. The program includes guest speakers, who share their local knowledge of farming practices. During weekend workshops, students visit different farms and apply their theoretical knowledge.

Two women are working on a parcel, manipulating a couple of plants

Mabel Trigueros (left) and participants working at the Institute’s Garden. Photo by Lee Cho

Everything the participants learn is approached from a sustainability angle, Zappia said — including farming techniques such as intercropping, which consists of placing plants that attract beneficial insects between rows of crops to protect them from other insects, avoiding the use of harmful pesticides.

In the program’s second stage, participants can apply for a three- to six-month apprenticeship, where they commit to one-on-one mentorship and hands-on training, which usually consists of work in the CSUN Food Garden, at nonprofits or at community gardens. From a list of CSUN professors and AFFP workers, the students are given the freedom to choose their own mentor depending on who aligns better with their goals. Then, based on what they want to accomplish, the mentor will schedule in-person or online activities, personalizing the journey for each mentee.

Eventually, the third stage of the new program will help guide participants to apply for a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant, to start working on an agricultural project.

“Even if a fraction of the participants decide to start their own farm, that will be an enormous impact for the community, and we’re really excited about it,” Zappia said.

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