Community Connections highlights the many leaders, partners, and neighbors who make a difference in our community. This month we are featuring Jacky Rivera, Organizing Manager for Sacred Heart Community Service’s La Mesa Verde program.
Even for someone who worked for years to solve problems in our food system and promote more equitable access to healthy and affordable food, the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on our food supply was a shock.
“We’ve become especially aware of how fragile our food system is,” said Jacky Rivera, Organizing Manager of Sacred Heart Community Service’s La Mesa Verde, home garden education program. “Like everyone, I was surprised by what I saw in the grocery store with empty shelves. Now, more than ever, the need is here.”
La Mesa Verde began in 2009 as a way to promote a sustainable source of fresh food for participants who often live in neighborhoods where fresh food is either unavailable or too expensive. The program provides supplies for participants to set up raised garden beds with seasonally-appropriate plants and drip irrigation systems, monthly garden education courses, and an experienced home gardener and mentor who checks in with them at home, providing advice and support.
A group of La Mesa Verde participants, from the program website
Since March, the program has shifted to bring their educational programs online through Zoom and Facebook Live, and Rivera has helped her team to shift community outreach back to old-fashioned phone calls.
“We’ve been doing a lot of member wellness calls, checking in on each other. The community space we provide through this program is very important, especially for elderly members who may be feeling isolated and scared.”
Rivera leads La Mesa Verde's September virtual workshop for program participants
Rivera is encouraging members to do these peer check-in calls, and also bring the heartfelt conversation into more transactional work they do, like event reminder outreach.
“I’m telling our volunteers, ‘Hey, this is a heads up’ - these are not just event reminder calls, the people you call may be looking to share some heavy stuff. Time and time again, the people receiving the calls tell us “Thank you so much,” and share an appreciation for this warmth. This continues to validate the work we are doing. We are really building something to strengthen our community. Mutual support among neighbors is especially important in this time.”
Jacky joined La Mesa Verde 2013 as a member of the Silicon Valley Health Corps, an Americorps public service program that connects recent college graduates with nonprofits working to provide nutritional education and access to healthy food.
“I grew up in an agricultural area, near the strawberry fields of Ventura County (Southern California), but I never really learned anything about gardening or how to grow my own food,” Rivera says. “I always felt disconnected from it, unlike my friends whose parents worked in agriculture and joined them sometimes in the fields.”
Rivera studied nutritional science and public health in college in New York. When she came back to California, she was drawn to the position at Sacred Heart Community Services, because she wanted the opportunity to work with community members on a variety of interrelated issues, from food access to affordable housing.
Rivera makes an announcement on La Mesa Verde's Facebook page
On getting her hands dirty and planting that first seed, “It was really eye-opening and very personal to me. La Mesa Verde helped me reconnect to food and the land.”
In her free time, Rivera is involved in community organizing efforts around housing affordability and tenants’ rights. She’s a founding member of the South Bay Community Land Trust, an organization that is working to dedicate land for permanently affordable housing, along with things that promote health and livability like community gardens, parks, and access to nature.
“We need homes, but we need green space, too! We need to have a balance.”