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Digging Deeper: Charting a Path to Change Through Service-Learning and Sustainability


Director of Sustainability and Nutrition Services
Claremont Unified School District, California

rick1Looking back now, I find myself lucky to have had the opportunity to learn from so many caring people during my experience at Community Works Institute (CWI) Service-Learning experience. I was not your “typical” participant in that I was not a teacher or and educator, or so I thought. I came to realize that as a Nutrition Services Director, I actually was an educator who was in fact educating young minds.  I found out that I had a unique opportunity to positively effect the learning environment by not only providing healthy food for healthy minds, but that I had the ability to encompass Service-Learning at my school district. My fellow participants were looking for opportunities to enhance Service-Learning in their schools and I quickly realized that I could help them.  School gardens and sustainable practices were excellent tools for Service-Learning and the best part was I was already doing this. My early efforts were validated as I never realized that I was actually beginning to build an infrastructure of Service-Learning. [photo above: gardeners at El Roble Middle School]

I have been the Nutrition Services Director at Claremont Unified School District for 16 months. Claremont is large school district located in Los Angeles County, California. Previously, I enjoyed two distinctly different careers. I spent 15 years working in the restaurant industry in various levels of management and followed that with 8 years as an audit manager with a CPA firm. The specialty of my audit firm was school districts and other non-profit entities. Little did I know that these experiences would lead me to where I am today. Over my tenure at my firm, I began to see just how school districts operated and felt that if the right opportunity came along I could use my background to make positive change. Since I had many years in customer service and with food my firm allowed me to consult with school districts on how they could improve efficiency of their operations. This is how I came to consult for Claremont Unified School District and eventually applied for and was hired to become their director. Being the father of three fantastic girls I could actually work in a profession where the end result could be healthier students and a healthier community for years to come. Who would have thought?

rick2I knew that as a Nutrition Services Director, I could positively influence the health and wellness of thousands of students. I could make policies and facilitate the serving of healthier food that could influence the eating habits and health habits of an entire community. I actually could make a difference. I just needed to know how. Towards the end of my first school year, I was attempting to reach students at a particular elementary school who were not participating in our lunch program. In a nutshell, their parents didn’t support the program, so their children brought food from home. I took it upon myself to invite the entire school and their families to have dinner from our regular menu served to the students. A healthy salad bar and fresh pasta were served to hundreds in attendance.  I wanted to change their perception by putting my food where their mouth was, so to speak. Little did I know that this would lead to my invitation to Community Works Institute’s annual Summer EAST Institute in Vermont. School districts around the country, due to many budget restrictions and a general unwillingness to change, gave me all the ammunition I needed to want to make a difference. This was not going to happen overnight. I knew that I was going to have to invest time and resources to change how things are done in the cafeterias of my schools. I also knew that I would have to look for new ideas and not be afraid to fail. 

rick3When I first arrived at the CWI's Summer Institute, I made it a point to meet as many people as possible. I did not know what to expect. Quickly I realized that I was only one of a few who were not “educators”. What I also realized that these new faces were passionate people who were people of action in addition to words. They were looking for new ways to educate their students. They were looking for new ways to not only stimulate young minds but to influence these young minds to care about their planet by giving of themselves. Listening to an English teacher speak about how she did not know anything about gardens, but took the opportunity to start one so that she could show her students about the cycle of life thru food was inspiring. Hearing about how another teacher was reaching out to young children from developing countries by teaching them about composting and sustainable practices was something that I could do in my own community. I quickly realized that everyone had amazing stories to share about how they wanted to inspire their students thru service-learning and how many of us were doing that without even knowing. Sustainable practices and student investment and participation were recipes for long lasting success.  Getting students to “want to do” instead of “having to do” projects was something that I was starting to understand for the first time.   

Taking the time to take a walk around Lake Champlain and learning about the experiences of an educator from Mississippi gave me unique perspective that I would not otherwise have ever had an opportunity for. She shared with me stories of her day to day life that gave me new perspective. She did not let challenges of her geography or her demographic stand in her way of reaching out to poor kids who needed help in understanding their impact for the future of their community. Speaking with another educator from Hawaii gave me insight on the challenges that one has on an island paradise. I discovered challenges that I later found out were the same as I had in California. What the Institute did for me was allow me the opportunity to share with individuals from different parts of the United States and abroad and realize that we all had unique experiences that we could all relate to. Some of the participants were veterans of the educational community. Some were youthful “go-getters” with new exuberance. Others like me were a little bit of both. What I quickly found out is that everyone was a “difference maker” in their own way.


rickWhen I returned to Claremont, my colleague and I quickly realized that we had to jump on this fresh opportunity to make a difference in our school district. I think that it was invaluable participating with a fellow colleague would give me a second opinion and be another potential advocate for change in our school district. Seeing first hand how organic gardens work in Vermont and how school gardens throughout the state work gave me true inspiration to do the same in Claremont. I quickly realized that every school could be included and that I had to reach out to many in my community. Cal Poly Pomona University has committed to a service agreement for 6 years. They have committed students, faculty, and curriculum to Claremont Unified School District. Every Monday, I have them helping me build sustainable school gardens. They have helped us with resources of labor, seeds, and expertise as they are committed to making a difference in my community. We began last month to present to classrooms various lessons on nutrition with ties to health and wellness. This past August, Scripps College obtained a grant to assist my program in enhancing health and wellness to high risk students at our continuation high school. They now have a wonderful salad bar and healthier choices than ever before.  I was able to quickly communicate and obtain assistance with Scripps College with the valuable tools and ideas shared in my study groups during my experience at Community Works Institute. Having “real world” success stories from my fellow participants validated that partnership and shared caring could work and could work in a timely manner. Seeing how the school district in Burlington, Vermont could partner with so many organizations with Service-Learning in mind was evidence that it could work.

rick5I do not know whether there is a better substitute than real world “hands on” participation in a setting such as Community Works Institute. Sharing conversations and working together in Institute study groups towards solutions was very rewarding. I felt validation for my current path. I learned new ideas and came away from my experience refreshed with vigor. It is one thing to sit down and read a guide or a manual on best practices. It is quite another to actually work out problems and come to solutions together with other people that truly care.

My study group consisted of many different people from different backgrounds.  I learned a valuable lesson when one person in our group brought up a great point. She had a strong Southern accent, and had been very quiet during the first couple of days working together.  She brought up a point that she felt that she did not feel part of the group because she felt that she was not being asked questions and was not engaged by others possibly because she was a Southerner and was not smart enough for the group. She asked everyone whether anyone had taken the time to talk with her during breaks or during opportunities for casual engagement.  And the funny thing was she was right. I had not engaged her and I really don’t know why. I could see things from her perspective and could understand why she felt that way.  It was not intentional by me, and I do not believe it was by the group.  It was a wakeup that children might feel the same way from time to time because they might be different from others.  Here we were grown adults and we unknowingly were doing something that kids might do to each other. Thankfully, we all looked at each other and probably realized that she was right. We from that point became a stronger group and really worked together on solutions, from all of us. 

rickSince I consider myself more of a visual learner I do not believe I could have taken away so much had I not actually been in attendance. I come away from my experience through the Community Works Institute a more conscientious person. For I realized for the first time in my new career as the Director of Food Services at Claremont Unified School District that I too am an educator—that I too am a person who can inspire students to be better citizens thru promoting proper nutrition and inclusion in sustainable gardens at all stages. I realized that I too can make a difference. Thank you for being an important launching point for all that I hope to become.

Rick Cota is Nutrition Services and Sustainability Director at Claremont Unified School District (CUSD). CUSD is large school district located in Los Angeles County, California. He attended CWI's Summer Institute on Place Based Service-Learning, accompanied by Claremont High School principal Brett O’Connor. Rick’s efforts around nutrition, health, and sustainable practices at CWI’s Institute were supported by a number of Community Works Institute partners including Vermont’s Community Garden Network, Friends of Burlington Gardens, and the Food Services Department of Burlington School District. His local efforts continue to receive invaluable support from his partners at Cal Poly Pomona University and Scripps College. More information on Community Works Institute and its programs and partners can be found at

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