Under 40 enjoys building ‘pillars’ of Olivewood community


Olivewood Gardens’ Director of Development Claire Groebner was named one of SD Metro’s ‘40 Under 40’ class of 2021.

Although she “appreciates the kudos,” she said she is much more interested in the food movement itself and is always looking for opportunities to share stories about the work Olivewood Gardens is doing to build three pillars of community support: education, action and advocacy.

“We started out with education at the forefront, kids’ field trip programs from all over the county, youth developing skills to make healthy choices for themselves and the earth. Then, several years ago, we had lots of parents asking for individual support which was the impetus for Cooking for Salud,” Groebner said.

A healthy cooking program, Cooking for Salud “helps adults develop confidence in the kitchen, incorporates fruit and vegetables— it’s really about meeting people where they’re at,” Groebner said.

Kitchenistas, graduates of the Cooking for Salud program are incorporated into annual personal-professional development opportunities.

To generate action, the Kitchenistas serve as community advocates, providing health and nutrition presentations to peers at schools and taking leadership training to build skills. Recently, Groebner said, they added on a high school component of the program that focuses on agriculture and helps students develop soft job skills.

Meanwhile, Olivewood leaders actively take on advocacy issues, pushing for community change, touting leadership development and partnering with the city of National City for non-profits and health equity initiatives.

The city, Groebner said, has been “historically overlooked with funding and resources but is also a thriving and diverse and outspoken community” and she believes it is something of a model for health equity awareness.

Although the transportation system is often talked about, she said, the food system and the number of miles food travels to get to its final destination can be huge.

“The farm to table movement used to be how we all lived. We used to go out to our garden, get our food, cook it in our homes but there has been a shift to fast food. The most recent farm to table movement is focused on local food systems, local farmers, local artisans so we’re not just creating community, but also addressing industrial farming, which is the largest cause of global climate change,” Groebner said.

At Olivewood, she said, they try to connect people to the origins of food: they start in the garden, see how food grows, come into the kitchen to cook and, ideally, see that connection.

“A lot of people have never had the opportunity to take something from the garden and prepare it. There’s something emotional about going back to our roots. There’s also a piece of resilience there. During the pandemic— if anyone had thought the food system was working before, well… They certainly see now that it isn’t working,” Groebner said, remembering families left waiting in line at food distribution points, parents who were used to stopping for fast food suddenly left without food resources.

Serving as Development Director, she said she tries to put forth a message about community above all else, referenced non-profit blogger Vu Le’s comparison between non-profits competing for resources and The Hunger Games, with individuals fighting to stay alive.

“I really try to see Olivewood as part of a whole system. Anything we’re doing or another non-profit is doing is benefiting all of us. When advocating for Olivewood, I try to demonstrate we’re not a one time thing, we’re a lifelong support system, from children passing through to high school students coming back as Kitchenistas. We strive to provide lifelong support to build community, support residents in being the changemakers,” Groebner said.

That passion for change is embedded in her approach to her own work as well.

“I am learning a lot more and really passionate about dismantling and reimagining what philanthropy looks like. Currently, it’s a top-down system that perpetuates inequity in many ways, the savior complex suggesting donors are saviors, the power hoarding and the resource hoarding. Of course there are wonderful things but it is still a system and I’m about changing that system so our community can really be in charge of our community, not be at the whim of this funder or that funder,” Groebner said.

Groebner said the Kitchenistas film, scheduled for two final 2021 screenings really paints the picture of food as community, as love and that part of Olivewood Gardens’ role as a non-profit is facilitating those community conversations.

“If we’re really passionate and truly dedicated to helping grow equity, that means we need to change the systems— we can’t just be educating or advocating, we have to be providing the way to change. The work that we do has ripple effects, for example, we’re involved with the San Diego Food System Alliance, involved with championing locally but also speaking on a regional scale,” Groebner said.

Moving forward, she said, her work with Olivewood is really about looking at systems change and advocacy, having conversations across the aisle from funder to non-profits in order to start building toward a system that works for everyone.

“It comes down to the folks with the resources listening to the community and then giving up those resources,” Groebner said.

Visit www.olivewoodgardens.org for more information on Groebner and Olivewood Gardens and Learning Center.

Under 40 enjoys building  ‘pillars’ of Olivewood community