Windsor woman fights food insecurity through planting, coordinating volunteers at local nonprofit

Food is more than sustenance for Samantha Arenas.

Yes, the 22-year-old Windsor resident needs food to live like the rest of us. But after a childhood during which her own family grappled with food insecurity, she also understands that secure access to food is a foundational element of a stable life.

This explains her work with Farm to Pantry, the Healdsburg-based nonprofit that aims to support environmental sustainability by rescuing locally grown food and sharing with those in need.

Arenas said she finds it “almost therapeutic” to work with her hands in the dirt.

“I find it personally satisfying to sow seeds individually and have that connection with the Earth and see that grow over time,” she said. “It’s a way to lose stress and forget about everything. It’s also a great to hear some of the volunteers talk about how gardening is a way for them to do things they can’t do in their current living situations —things they enjoyed doing when they were younger back in Mexico.”

Last year alone, the organization gleaned more than 350,000 pounds of produce from Sonoma County landowners and redistributed that food to thousands of people who did not have the means to get it on their own. Arenas joined the team in November 2021 and has extended and amplified this mission ever since.

As part of these efforts, she has helped galvanize the local community around issues of food justice, and has contributed positively to the development of a community garden in Healdsburg.

“It’s all about helping people who need help,” she said. “The way I see it, that’s the only way we grow.”

Understanding how the food system works

Arenas grew up in Windsor as the child of two Mexican immigrants — Dad from Oaxaca and mom from Coahuila.

When she was a child, her parents struggled to earn enough money to feed their family, and her mother regularly relied upon the Redwood Empire Food Bank for groceries. Back then Arenas didn’t know what food insecurity was — she just knew how exciting it was to go through the goodies her mother brought home.

“She’d come with a big bag and me and my siblings would be like, ‘What did you get this time?’” Arenas said. “It’s different when you’re younger than it is when you’re an adult and you figure out people rely on produce to survive the month or the week.”

Arenas’ experience with food insecurity shaped her. After graduating from Windsor High School, she went to Sonoma State University and majored in geography and environment and planning.

She learned more about the connection between land access and food injustice — how so often people struggle to gain access to food because they struggle to gain access to the land on which much of the food is grown.

During her senior year, she was an intern at Petaluma Bounty — a nonprofit farm that aims to grow enough food to create a thriving local food system for all. When she graduated, she looked around for nonprofit farms and organizations that would enable her to fight for food justice on a broader scale. That’s how she found Farm to Pantry.

Planting, coordinating with volunteers and farmers

At Farm to Pantry, Arenas has been given a variety of responsibilities.

Technically, her job is office coordinator, which means she serves as an assistant to Executive Director Duskie Estes by organizing gleans and volunteers for those efforts. Through this work, she also acts as a liaison with local farmers and others in the community who have food to share.

Arenas has leaned into this role and expanded her role as a connector, helping to organize monthly workdays at the Jardin de Brillo community garden on Terrace Avenue in Healdsburg.

During these shifts, she translates for volunteers who don’t speak English and facilitates with weeding, planting, trimming and any other tasks that need management. The last workday was March 5, and Arenas helped plant kale, onions, cilantro, spinach and lettuce. Over the course of three hours that morning, roughly 30 volunteers showed up to help. Arenas was in the center of it all. Many of these volunteers are affiliated with Corazón Healdsburg, another nonprofit in town.

Estes said she likes seeing local nonprofits working together, and credits Arenas with facilitating these bonds.

“Samantha has been critical to our team in translating our communications and recipes so all have access to good food and how to land it on the table,” Estes said. “I’m not sure we’d be able to connect the people the way we do without her help, and I know members of the community appreciate that she’s there.”

Healdsburg Vice Mayor Ariel Kelley agreed, saying the ongoing collaboration between Farm to Pantry and Corazón has helped transform the tiny Jardin de Brillo into one of Healdsburg’s biggest success stories.

“It’s a place where neighbors can come together to plant seeds and reap the benefits of growing food and building relationships with one another,” Kelley said.

Busy seasons are on the horizon

As the garden grows, Farm to Pantry will harvest the produce and hand it over to those in need.

Arenas undoubtedly will be a part of that process, and likely will be the one to coordinate volunteers for harvest days as well.

In the meantime, she is focusing on yet another task: Running gleans. In a nutshell, gleans are excursions or outings where volunteers harvest extra food for the purpose of redistributing it to those in need. As of press time, Arenas was heading up Saturday gleans at DMS Ranch in Sebastopol. Right now, groups that descend upon the farm harvest nothing but Meyer lemons. When new items start sprouting, the group will harvest those, too.

Ultimately, Arenas said she expects to be leading multiple Saturday gleans.

“From what I’ve heard, during the summer it gets way busier,” she said. “With more produce, we’ll need more people.”

Whatever Arenas ends up being asked to do, whether she’s counting spreadsheet numbers, leading gleans, or running volunteer efforts at the garden, she said she is happy to fight food injustice by getting produce out to people in need.

Ultimately, she does the work so others don’t have to experience what she did as a child.

“We are lucky enough to live in a place where there is always awesome, bountiful, and nutritious food,” she said. “It’s important to tell people the food is here. It’s important to make it accessible to those who can’t access it. And it’s important to remember that, as a community, we’ve got to look out for each other.”

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