Peer Led Model Helps Mesa Verde Gardens Expand

When Ana Rasmussen started Mesa Verde Gardens several years ago, she could not have foreseen how quickly her ideas would come to fruition. Ana’s mission was simply to help low-income people achieve equal access to fresh, healthy food by joining with them to build and maintain their own organic edible gardens. Her ultimate goal? Reducing the risk for obesity, diabetes, and other diet-related health problems plaguing low-income residents due to poor nutrition.

Today, with six community gardens and 180 families, Mesa Verde Gardens has become part of a growing movement across the United States. It goes like this. Track down a plot of unused land, add a generous helping of community support, and watch it grow through the hard work of dedicated gardeners. Success!

Ana, second from left, with fellow gardeners

Ana, second from left, with fellow gardeners

But Ana was spreading herself too thin. There was no way she could manage all the existing gardens and still take advantage of new opportunities. In order to scale the program she needed to identify gardeners that were willing to take charge—and they would have to be trained. Leveraging Second Harvest’s peer-led nutrition education program, Passion For Produce, Ana joined forces with Joel Campos of Second Harvest to develop her own Peer Leadership Training—empowering gardeners that had already taken on informal leadership roles with the skills and knowledge to act independently.


Leadership Training participants

Fifteen participants attended the month long training, which consisted of four classes. The first class was a half-day retreat focused on personal strengths and challenges. Next on the agenda was formalizing the rules for participation. Among other things, each gardener must pay $6.00 each month to cover water costs and commit to two hours of garden service in addition to maintaining their own plot.

The third class consisted of a field trip to other community gardens in the area to share ideas.


Field trip!

The final class put the focus back on communication skills with a session led by Armando Alcaraz, designed to arm the new leaders with strategies for managing the challenges they would face in their new roles, such as running meetings and enforcing accountability.

Garden start-up expenses run approximately $12,000-$15,000. This covers under- and above-ground irrigation, tilling, seeds, tools, and other infrastructure costs for the first year. After the first year, each garden is self-sustaining, with the $6.00 monthly fee per plot covering expenses.

There are many hands involved in the making the program a success. This is the third year Sierra Azul Nursery in Watsonville has donated greenhouse space and materials to start tomatoes and peppers.


Happy seedlings at Sierra Azul

Students in Watsonville High School’s Agriculture program are growing seedlings they helped choose from catalogs.


Watsonville High School students

Start-up funding comes from a variety of sources. One of the newest gardens, located in Live Oak with room for 50 families, received funding from a donor who wishes to remain anonymous. “We’ve never been able to give so directly to a program before,” said the donor. “We live nearby and will be able to watch as the garden progresses.”

The Freedom Community Garden has room for 20 families and is located on the property of the Watsonville Community School. This garden is being jointly funded by Driscoll’s and Community Foundation Santa Cruz County.

Ana says, “Community gardens are backyards for low income people who have just as much right to grow food for themselves.” When asked if she worries about the effects of California’s drought, Ana says community gardens are the kind of response we want to have to the drought. Each garden uses drip irrigation and is extremely efficient, using far less water than the average allotment for a single-family dwelling in Santa Cruz County.

Donations of long-handled tools such as rakes, shovels and hoes are always welcome, as are monetary donations.

For more information or to make a donation, please contact Ana at




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