Lewis Griswold

Volunteers spend week in Exeter building food bank gardens

Terra Chavez, left of San Francisco, and Kristin O’Connell, right, of Tempe, Arizona, get a plank ready for a pergola project at FoodLink for Tulare County. They are volunteers for an In Good Company community service project.
Terra Chavez, left of San Francisco, and Kristin O’Connell, right, of Tempe, Arizona, get a plank ready for a pergola project at FoodLink for Tulare County. They are volunteers for an In Good Company community service project. lgriswold@fresnobee.com

Twenty employees of several of the most progressive companies in America spent a week in Exeter last week doing major volunteer work at FoodLink for Tulare County, a food bank with a vision of fresh and healthy food for the hungry.

Employees of Clif Bar & Company, Timberland and Seventh Generation were among those breaking a sweat.

Food Link recently moved from Visalia to Exeter, but the bare ground around the new building, formerly a packing shed, cried out for a project to advance the food bank’s mission.

Volunteers laid in dozens of ready-to-plant gardens, installed irrigation lines, planted a variety of fruit trees in an area dubbed the Food Forest, built two pergolas for shade and more than 500 feet of fence, landscaped in front of the building, and built a kids’ learning garden.

They started Monday and ended Friday.

FoodLink came to the attention of Clif Bar & Company, a maker of organic foods and drinks known for its energy bars, whose In Good Company community service program tackles projects around the country involving healthy food systems, sustainable housing and environmental restoration.

Participating companies allow an employee to leave for a week to join a work team at a project site and pay the employee’s wages while she or he is out changing the world. Teams have been to places such as the South Bronx, the Hopi Indian reservation and the Gulf Coast of Louisiana.

In Exeter, volunteers came from American Licorice, Amy’s Kitchen, Annie’s Homegrown, Chico Bag, Clif Bar & Company, EILEEN FISHER, King Arthur Flour, Klean Kanteen, Quality Bicycle Parts, Seventh Generation, States Logistics, Timberland and UNFI.

FoodLink fit the bill because it distributes healthy foods to people in an area of high need and FoodLink executive director Sarah Ramirez has a vision of a place where people can learn about healthy foods and grow them right there at Foodlink.

Vast orchards and large packing sheds are FoodLink’s neighbors, but “in the middle of all this food there’s hunger,” said Chris Gregoire, 42, whose day job is digital creative director at Timberland in Stratham, New Hampshire.

“It’s great to be out of the office and to be making such large impact,” he said.

In Good Company believes that participants will return home inspired to participate in or start similar projects in their own communities, said Val Bisharat, community programs manager for Clif Bar & Company.

“There’s a ripple effect,” she said. “They’ll tell their friends, and family and colleagues at home. Our hope is we’re building awareness and creating positive change.”

Maudy Mendez, 27, of LaPorte, Indiana, is employed as a production team leader at American Licorice, but in Exeter she built fences and put in irrigation lines.

“I’m ready to go back home and do some amazing things there,” she said. “I definitely want to work with kids and bring nutrition into the area.”

Exeter wins national FFA award

At the FFA National Convention in Indianapolis, Exeter High students won an award as one of the top chapters in the country.

The blue jackets took home the National Chapter Model of Innovation Community Development award.

Senior Elijah Ewing, 17, and junior Isabella Gomez, 16, represented the Exeter chapter in a competition between 10 finalists from across the country.

“It was nerve-wracking for sure,” Ewing said. “But it’s an honor. It’s a privilege being in the top 10. You feel like you’ve already won.”

The judges were impressed by the chapter’s activities, including the annual Hunger Heroes Food Hunt, a canned food drive benefiting FoodLink for Tulare County.

FFA is a mainstay at high schools in agricultural communities, and about 430 students at Exeter High are members. That’s 43 percent of the student body. If you take a class involving agriculture at Exeter High, you’re in FFA, which stands for Future Farmers of America.

The school has four ag teachers – Dan Crookham, Nicole Ray, Kevy Mendes and Shelly Lyons.

The chapter is successful because of “good kids and a good town,” Crookham said.

For the can drive, the club breaks into teams competing against each other to see how many cans they can raise in a single hour. This year they netted 2,000 cans.

“It’s a fun, competitive, lighthearted activity, so the kids buy into it,” Crookham said.

The students gave their presentation at the national convention on Oct. 19, and the next day at the general assembly Exeter FFA was announced as the winner of the community development award.

Lewis Griswold covers news of the South Valley for The Bee: 559-441-6104, @fb_LewGriswold