DEL MAR — Imagine a tiny worm, inching its way toward a finish line about 12 inches from where it started. Dozens of parents, children and bystanders are gathered around the picnic table racetrack, cheering on the handlers of the worms as they spray their contestants with water, pushing them toward their goal.
“Well, worms don’t take direction really well, so it’s kind of fun to watch,” Jana Birch, a race volunteer, explained. “Everybody was trying.”
The race is a part of an exhibit at the San Diego County Fair hosted by the Solana Center for Environmental Innovation, with funding from the city of San Diego. The Solana Center is an educational nonprofit devoted to promoting sustainability countywide.
On a Thursday afternoon at the fair, Birch, a Cardiff resident, facilitated worm races while also educating attendees on topics like compost and reducing their carbon footprint. As a retired special education teacher, Birch loves seeing the moment when these concepts click.
“When people say, ‘I really learned something today,’ that feels good,” Birch said. “It’s like I’m not retired from teaching after all.”
For more than 20 years, the Solana Center has had a presence at the fair. In 2012, it set up shop on the farm in the middle of the racetrack. Jennifer Galey, senior environmental educator and fair liaison for the Solana Center, has managed this farm separate from the center since 2009. She also worked for the San Diego County Fair for 23 years.
Galey’s “Infield Farm” operates year-round, working with in-house restaurants to create compost from their waste. During fair season, the farm becomes a spot for attendees to learn about sustainability with the help of the Solana Center.
“It’s good outreach for us to do, to educate people as to what we have ongoing throughout the rest of the year, and that we teach all of this stuff,” Galey said.
For three years now, the center has held a permanent space on the farm with its Eco Container. The team transformed an old shipping container into an interactive exhibit that literally lets people walk through their carbon footprint, while providing them with ways to reduce it.
Solana Center’s Community Engagement Coordinator Jackie Bookstein said these events at the fair raise huge amounts of awareness for the organization. Every year, their work at the fair grows. For instance, this year is the first for their Eco Adventure, a farm-wide scavenger hunt made possible by a partnership with San Diego Gas and Electric.
“There are nine stops,” Bookstein said. “They go out to the chicken coup, the bee exhibit, the butterfly exhibit … it’s trying to tie it all together.”
The Solana Center booth at the fair features the worm races, the Eco Adventure, the Eco Container and other interactive pieces educating residents on sustainability practices. Bookstein said this engagement is key to helping the community connect with the cause.
“Everything is super hands on,” Bookstein said. “That’s the point of our exhibit in the fair — to give people practical skills with a few more heavy concepts.”
In addition to its three interns, the center has brought on about 40 volunteers at the fair this season. It is always seeking helping hands, whether it be for their efforts at home base or the fair. Many of these volunteers come to her directly from emailed newsletters, with the fair opportunities gaining the most attention. However, volunteers like Birch continue the work of the Solana Center all year to bring their passions to the public.
“It was something that I wanted to do,” Birch said. “It’s a passion of mine to try to be more earth conscious and reduce waste, and do what I can to educate people to create less waste.”