A conversation with EarthGen

This article was originally published in September 2022

red apples

PCC’s mission is to ensure that good food nourishes the communities it serves, while cultivating vibrant, local, organic food systems. We’re proud to partner with organizations throughout the region and share their stories. Sound Consumer contributor Tara Austen Weaver recently visited a program supported by EarthGen, formerly Washington Green Schools, which emphasizes youth-centered, collective solutions for a healthy planet. At PCC, 100% of proceeds from our “Farm-to-School” bagged Fuji apples supports EarthGen and other local organizations focused on food systems education.

It’s a sunny day at Rising Star Elementary School on Beacon Hill, as Lisa Sandrock’s first grade class files out of the building and heads to the raised bed garden area next to the playfield. “How big do you think these carrots are going to be?” Sandrock asks, as students gather excitedly around a garden bed. Planted in early spring, the rows of carrots have grown and put out feathery green foliage. “Do you know how to pull carrots out of the ground?” she asks, as small hands reach forward. In response, one of the students proclaims, “I love radishes!”

Later in the afternoon, third and fourth grade students walk through the woodlands behind the school. Formerly overgrown, the area is accessible now thanks to a volunteer weekend of brush clearing and trail building. The students report on the wildlife that inhabits these urban woodlands: red-tailed hawks, big toe salamanders, hairy woodpeckers, black-capped chickadees, and coyotes. Inside the school, hallways are decorated with student-made posters that analyze energy use and show how switching to more efficient sources can conserve resources and impact climate change. 

All these projects are the tangible results of EarthGen’s innovative program to help equip students and teachers with the science knowledge and skills necessary for taking action toward improving their community. 

EarthGen’s programs are varied, but all seek to tackle the twin issues of climate change and social injustice. They range from building rain gardens that reduce pollution in waterways to helping minimize food waste in school lunch service. Initially begun as an environmental certification program for Washington schools, with a grant from the state Department of Ecology, EarthGen now reaches nearly 40,000 students in 392 schools across Washington.  

We spoke with Laura Collins, EarthGen’s director of advancement.

Q: How did EarthGen get started? 

A: We started in 2010, as a project to introduce an environmental school certification program for the state of Washington (the program was originally called Washington Green Schools). As the organization has evolved, we’ve grown our relationships with the schools and communities we work with and our programming has been responsive to their needs. There are 295 different school districts in the state, so we really customize our programs to meet the communities where they are. When we are in Tonasket (in north-central Washington), we’re talking about agriculture—we’re not talking about saving the orcas, because they don’t have orcas there.

The organization is really about making sure that every student across Washington is equipped with the skills and knowledge they need to be a leader for the environment.  

Q: How has the program evolved?

A: We began as a certification program—to identify an environmental problem to solve in your community—but that model really requires a champion, either a parent or teacher to lead it. And if the teacher moves to another school, the program wasn’t necessarily kept up. At the same time, students are coming to school with anxiety or apathy about climate change—feeling like it’s too late and there’s nothing we can do. The teachers told us: we want to have these conversations, we know how important it is, and we need your help to get it right. Students need scientific information as a baseline to be able to talk about climate change. 

We talk about the social/emotional part of it as well, that’s really important. But we’re focused on action and solutions: Let’s talk about what we can do, how we can support them in taking action for change. It’s a very positive way of approaching it. 

The fact that we are creating content that is tailored for the communities we work in [and offered in both English and Spanish] really makes a difference. We hear from educators that this helps students lean in and engage with science in a way they never have before. 

Q: How did the pandemic impact the work EarthGen does?

A: We moved our training online—the demand for science-based curriculum that could be taught remotely was really high. We were actually able to reach a lot of teachers we wouldn’t have been able to otherwise—some teachers live in areas where they would have to drive long distances if they want to take our trainings. So, we were able to be “present” in communities we hadn’t reached before, which was great. And we were able to connect educators in districts that are similar—who might not live close together but are dealing with many of the same issues. But it is important for us to be physically present as well, so we’re now looking at taking what we learned during the pandemic to develop a hybrid model.

Q: What are the biggest challenges you face?

A: There is such a demand for this work—and our limiting factor is funding. The organization is growing. Right now, all our staff is in the Seattle area, but we’re looking at opening a regional hub in Yakima. We have a great board and we talk a lot about balancing breadth vs. depth—to grow, but make sure we are continuing to provide quality programming. 

Q: How can people best support the work that EarthGen is doing? 

A: Financially investing in this work is important, of course. But also, giving space for students and recognizing the amazing ways they can make change and supporting them. And for educators, we have a calendar of events on our website. Our trainings are all free and educators can sign up.

Learn more

For more information on EarthGen visit earthgenwa.org.

“Farm to School” organic bagged apples are available at all PCC stores.

Also in this issue

The best fruits & vegetables to buy organic

The “Dirty Dozen” and “Clean Fifteen” lists compiled by the Environmental Working Group are a good guide for when to prioritize organic produce if you have to make a choice. See what’s new for 2022.

Tips for baking the best “Everyday Cake”

Polina Chesnakova, a professional baker and cooking teacher, shares the secrets of success for baking great cakes (plus a recipe for the Tres Leches Cake in her new cookbook.)

Policy Report

Aimee Simpson, PCC’s senior director of advocacy and environmental, social and governance (ESG) talked with a United Nations group on “how to learn from the past to feed the future.”