After more than 20 years teaching English and social studies and training other educators, Cecilia Stevens used her time at home during the COVID-19 pandemic to throw herself into her favorite activities.
She also began to reevaluate her career.
“I was realizing the things I truly, truly love were being outdoors, helping others and, particularly, just my passion that I have for gardening and cooking,” Stevens said.
When a new job came open for a local food systems coordinator with the LSU AgCenter Northeast Region, she felt like it had been written with her in mind. The position included supporting farmers markets and food pantries, helping start community and school gardens, and establishing programs to help fresh, healthful foods enter the food system.
“It was the same opportunity to serve people and to teach that I had in public education that I really enjoyed,” she said.
Stevens joined the AgCenter as an agent working on the Centers for Disease Control High Obesity Program grant three years ago. She has helped develop the Grow a Row to Share program, which helps gardeners give homegrown fruits and vegetables to food banks and charities that can share the produce with people in need.
She has also assisted community centers, churches, schools and 4-H groups with building gardens and helped educate residents of northeastern Louisiana on how to buy nutritious foods through the Geaux Shop Healthy program.
Some communities in northeast Louisiana and in the Mississippi River Delta are considered food deserts, which means many people cannot easily access fresh food by car or walking.
“If you look around where we are, that seems kind of a contradictory statement because we're also in the heart of production country for foods in our area,” Stevens said.
Helping residents of Madison, Tensas, Morehouse and East Carroll parishes access fresh foods can not only help with the health of local people. It can also grow the economy, she said.
“Our work is very strongly motivated to get those local foods back into the communities where they're grown,” Stevens said. “And it's also an economic benefit because you're keeping those dollars within the same parish, the same food system.”
Growing up in Tensas Parish, agriculture was a large part of Stevens’ life. Her father and grandfather were both farmers, and she was active in 4-H, even serving as a state president. When she attended LSU, Stevens wanted initially to become an AgCenter 4-H agent and return home. Her friends at LSU questioned why she would wish to live in the rural Delta.
“I just love the region,” she said. “I think it's one of the most beautiful places in the world. You know, I have traveled nationally and internationally, but I'm ready to come home at some point. I love the people and our history — the good and bad of our history — and the better we can make our future because of it.”
Stevens raised her children in Concordia Parish. One child, Crawford, is a musician playing regularly in Louisiana and Mississippi. Her daughter, Caroline, is a student at Louisiana Tech.
At home in Monterey, in Concordia Parish, Stevens is still gardening. This year she planted 17 different varieties of tomatoes.
“I can’t wait,” she said. “I’ve got striped and yellow and everything in between.”
In the summer, Stevens will join Seeds to Success: The Louisiana Farm to School Program as a program manager.
“I joined the Farm to School team for the opportunity to work more closely with students to help them make a connection between food sourcing, nutrition and traditions,” she said.
The new position is a continuation of her local food systems work, Stevens said, just in a different AgCenter division.
This article was included in the summer 2023 edition of Louisiana Agriculture magazine.
Video by Olivia McClure/LSU AgCenter
From left, Farrar Crigler, of the St. Joe Garden and Grow Project; Hailey Birdon, Tensas Parish 4-H member; and LSU AgCenter agent Cecilia Stevens harvest radishes from raised beds in a community garden in St. Joseph April 12, 2023. The garden is part of the AgCenter’s Grow a Row to Share program, which is spearheaded by Stevens. Photo by Olivia McClure/LSU AgCenter
LSU AgCenter agent Cecilia Stevens, right, takes down information from members of Oneonta Baptist Church in St. Joseph about what kinds of plants they’d like to grow in their community garden during a visit April 12, 2023. The church is participating in the AgCenter’s Grow a Row to Share program, spearheaded by Stevens, and also operates a food pantry. Photo by Olivia McClure/LSU AgCenter