Facilitating & Convening With Quina Weber-Shirk

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Quina learning to use a new tool in a community garden.

Quina tilling in Mixed Greens Community Garden, at N.C. Cooperative Extension, Guilford County Center. Photo credit: Denise McCollugh.

Quina Weber-Shirk is a Community and School Garden Agent with N.C. Cooperative Extension in Guilford County. A little over two and a half years ago City and County offices agreed that community gardens are an important community asset and decided they wanted a staff member dedicated to supporting gardens. They formed a cooperative agreement to create her unique position. In her role, Quina provides technical support, networking, resources, and programming with the goal of building capacity of gardens across the County. “My favorite part of the job is collaborating in and out of the office to provide the best programs and resources for community and school gardens,” Quina said.

Guilford County has a unique local food landscape. The County encompasses North Carolina’s third-largest urban area, suburban landscapes, and rural areas. The County has long been a resettlement site for immigrants and refugees. The spatial and demographic diversity of the County makes for rich farming and food practices. There are many farms selling to local markets scattered across the different landscapes and a number of farmers markets to help consumers get access to the food, although some parts of the County struggle with high rates of food insecurity. Major challenges include child and senior hunger and farmland preservation in the face of urbanization. Local governments and community groups work together to address these challenges with the goal of promoting agriculture and community development goals. One thing that makes food system development successful in Guilford County is that “Extension is at the table, but not the sole champion. A lot of people and groups invest in our food systems. This reinforces the roles of Extension as a facilitator and convener,” Quina explained.

Quina works on several different community programs. Seeds to Share is a program that brings community and learning gardens together with Extension Master Garden℠ volunteers (EMGVs). Rooted in Wellness is a three-part workshop in partnership with Guilford Partnership for Children and the Greensboro Children’s Museum for Early Childcare Providers. This past February, Quina collaborated with Alyssa McKim at N.C. A&T State University Extension to facilitate a 2-day Community Garden Leaders Training, a program for community garden leaders on both horticulture and community building.

One of Quina’s favorite projects is the Guilford County School Garden Network. This Network is a peer-learning network for teachers, parents, and community members supporting school gardens to learn about best practices. The Network engages members through different opportunities such as workshops, a two-day summer institute, and newsletter. Recently, the Network had a special COVID-19 meeting to discuss challenges and strategies for school gardens this year.

Members of the network asked for more facilitated discussions, which has shaped how Quina engages with the group. “A key part of the School Garden Network is to make it a collaborative. Find community partners who are willing to be engaged and champion the network, so it’s not just an Extension led program.”

With COVID-19, a lot of Quina’s work transitioned to a virtual space. With school plans up in the air, it was a challenge to focus on gardens. Now people are starting to look towards spring, thinking about what gardens can look like, and how they can provide a safe learning environment as students return. Community gardens were an important community asset earlier this year that helped people relieve stress during stressful times. “I saw that in the community garden at our Extension office, community members were spending more time at the garden. As more things have gone virtual, there’s also a need to balance it out and be outside and do hands-on activities,” Quina said.

To build on a Farm to School seed distribution project from earlier this Spring, Quina partnered with Guilford County 4-H Agent, Sarah Paschall, to provide at-home gardening kits to 554 students. Quina and Sarah follow along with the kids by posting weekly updates on a website with instructions for the kids, and inviting other Agents in the office for guest appearances.

As far as giving advice for other Local Food Coordinators in the state, Quina says, “I get a lot of energy from networking with other people engaged with local food, whether that’s in-county, statewide groups like the Extension Local Food Program Team, or national groups like the School Garden Support Organization.

“Local food has a real connection to community and tradition and stories. Local food is really central to our community,” Quina concluded. “Local food is a great way to connect people with each other.”

Local Food that Quina is Excited About in October:

“Apples; to eat raw or for making apple crisp. I explore different orchards and places to buy every year. Jonagold variety is delicious raw!”

Box of Jonagold apples