The Ecology Center in San Juan Capistrano, California, has long been one of our favorite places to visit. Intimate movie premieres, like surf filmmaker Cyrus Sutton’s recent documentary on GMO’s, “Island Earth,” and farm-to-table community dinners whipped up with locally-grown ingredients by local chefs, are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to this sustainably-focused resource’s offering.

Since the non-profit’s inception, Founder Evan Marks has strived to provide hands-on learning opportunities and engage the surrounding community when it comes to the entire eco-system – growing your own food, conserving water and other sustainable practices.

For those in North County San Diego, The Ecology Center is now expanding its program to Encinitas with a slightly different model that focuses on educational experiences for students in the community – namely, growing organic produce for cafeterias across the Encinitas Unified School District.

The Farm Lab in Encinitas will give students a hands on chance to learn about sustainable practices. Photo: The Ecology Center

Although The Ecology Center has worked with hundreds of schools in the past, the Encinitas Farm Lab project will mark the organization’s first time partnering with an entire school district, according to Marks.

The partnership will extend all the way from the school’s leadership team, down to the students, engaging 9 schools and 5,400 students. And while many of the programs from the San Juan flagship will carry over, the Encinitas program is unique, and will represent a case study into how the Ecology Center’s model can potentially be scaled in the future.

With Earth Day fast approaching, Marks and his team are officially unveiling the new space this week at a special grand opening event for North County. We caught up with him to hear exactly what San Diego residents can expect, why the move south is an important one for The Ecology Center and the programming and experiences the Farm Lab is cooking up in the near future.

How long has The Ecology Center been working with Encinitas Unified School District (EUSD) to make this happen?

We have been in conversation with Farm Lab and EUSD for about a year – it’s been a positive experience and we have learned a lot. Working with an entity like a school district is something different, and creates so much opportunity for our organization, the school district, and the Encinitas community.

We have amazing support from superintendent, Tim Baird, the Encinitas Union School District school board and key administrators that have helped make this project so great. It’s a perfect fit.

What was the initial spark of inspiration that you felt to get involved in the Encinitas community? What makes Encinitas and the Farm Lab the right fit with what The Ecology Center does?

We knew we wanted to dig into the North County area, but we didn’t know where. Rob Machado was a huge inspiration for this project. As a long-time friend of The Ecology Center, he played a role in bringing Encinitas front of mind.

The Ecology Center is no stranger to the San Diego area, as we have worked on a number of school gardens and water stewardship projects in the area. So when this opportunity arose, we were eager to jump on board. I also live in Oceanside.

North County has so much to offer: there is a great food scene, the climate is amazing, so selfishly, I couldn’t be happier to be a part of such a thriving community.

Why is youth education an important part of The Ecology Center’s mission?

I believe children are the future. We want to arm them with the tools, experiences and resources to thrive. Why not open up the dialogue to solve our future challenges?

With that said, it is really a holistic orientation, there is something for all ages. We have done this at our mothership in San Juan Capistrano, where there is dynamic programming seven days a week and different offerings throughout the year.

There is something for everyone – children, families, foodies, chefs, artists and farmers. We really want to be a critical resource for everyone in the community.

The site plan for a future build out at Encinitas’ Farm Lab in partnership with The Ecology Center. Image courtesy of The Ecology Center

What is your vision for all the events and programs you’ll be offering? Will there be some things that are tailored specifically to this community?

Almost 10 years in, we have learned a lot. It’s cool in that we started with the same programs 10 years ago and have worked to perfect those programs.

The Ecology Center has a certain perspective of the world, so we are going to stay focused on those core offerings, which is providing skills-based learning to all ages. We do this through providing experiences and designing facilities that are participatory and seek to export creative solutions.

We also focus on the culinary community, connecting farmers and chefs, with an emphasis on how that transforms the way we eat. In Encinitas, we will continue to host farm dinners and bring conversations to the table that help build stronger communities.

We will also continue to host film screenings and speakers series but in general, the impactful work that we do here in San Juan Capistrano will be replicated at our Encinitas project.

We will also be doing something entirely different. We will be growing organic produce for the cafeterias in the Encinitas Union School District.

We have been growing food within our communities for a long time, but we have never had the opportunity to have such a direct impact with our farming efforts and that is something we are overwhelmingly excited about.

Additionally, we will provide experiential moments throughout the school year where those 5,400 children are part of our hands-on problem solving. We’ve hosted over 30,000 children in San Juan Capistrano and now we get to continue that at a higher frequency.

Do you see this model inspiring other programs across the country? Is The Ecology Center actively working to bring this type of model to life in other communities, and potentially scaling it a national level?

Our mission statement is to model creative solutions for thriving on planet earth, and we have done just that in a number of locations and capacities.

This project with The Encinitas Union School District presents a new level of what we are able to achieve in working with a school district. It shows that organizations like ours can align with a public/private partnership and transform the lives of communities and families.

We look at this partnership as an experiment to see if we can scale this work. If we can then there will absolutely be opportunity to export it to other destinations. Whether we are the facilitator or the mentor, our goal is that we start to ground our feet back on this planet. We don’t aim to solve all the world’s problems but we do want to be a force for the world.

The Ecology Center’s Marks on the 32-foot double decker Road Trip bus. Photo: The Ecology Center

When will the Encinitas campus be fully up and running? Where can people find more information and a schedule of upcoming programs for Farm Lab + The Ecology Center?

This summer we are farming tomatoes and peppers for school lunches, which will be preserved for the sauce to be used on pasta and pizza this fall.

After our groundbreaking we will also begin on our stewardship and programming efforts. Our goal is to collaborate with the community to build infrastructure through a series of volunteer opportunities and programs.

The majority of our programming will be run out of our mobile learning experience, Road Trip, which is a 32-ft double-decker bus that acts as The Ecology Center on wheels and will play host to our workshops while we work on Phase 1 of our buildout.

You can visit our website for more information about how to get involved.

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