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10 Questions: Jessica Toth of Solana Center

Jessica Toth has been the executive director of Solana Center for Environmental Innovation for two years. Though always passionate about the environment, she took a circuitous route to get here, starting on Wall Street during the 1980s.

Since then, she has held positions in corporate research, marketing, IT consulting, and business process improvement at various companies, including HP, Texas Instruments, the World Bank, Kyocera, SDG&E, and the San Diego Zoo. She also co-founded and ran Curious Company, an educational software company.

More recently, she established the environmental education programs at Rob Machado Foundation and served on San Diego Coastkeeper’s Advisory Committee. Toth holds a master’s degree from MIT in business and a bachelor’s degree from Cornell in engineering.

Just last weekend, Solana Center, in partnership with the city of Encinitas, Rob Machado Foundation, and Hurley, led a Green Team of volunteers to handle waste at the 11th annual Switchfoot/Bro-Am event. The team diverted an unprecedented amount of waste from the landfill. Solana Center will be managing the food waste using an innovative county-approved process that is believed to be the first-ever use of Bokashi to compost event-generated food scrap.

What brought you to Encinitas?

My husband and I met in grad school on the East Coast. We hadn’t dated long when we finished school. So I went off to a job at Texas Instruments in Dallas and he came out here to Hewlett-Packard. After two years of long-distance dating, we decided that one of us should move — of course we chose Encinitas, rather than Dallas! I worked at SDG&E. Shortly after we bought a beach cottage in Cardiff and got married, we had the opportunity to both work at HP in Barcelona, Spain, which we couldn’t pass up. We returned in the mid-’90s and have now lived in Cardiff for 20 years, raising two daughters here.

If you could snap your fingers and have it done, what might you add, subtract or improve in Encinitas?

I’d love to see facilities and infrastructure able to process our food waste locally. Forty percent of our landfill waste is organic material — edible or compostable. We lack the infrastructure to make sure that all edible excess food from grocery stores, for example, goes to people in need. (In San Diego, 1 in 6 has limited or uncertain access to adequate food.)

Within the community, we also have many places we could send food scrap to feed animals, such as petting zoos and dairy farms. And, after all other means of diverting food scrap from our landfill are exhausted, we should be composting our organic waste. The nearest commercial composting facility that will accept Encinitas’ food waste is in Victorville, over 130 miles away!

Landfilling our organic waste creates greenhouse gases, buries nutrients valuable to our soil, and takes up landfill capacity. In the end, soil amended with compost has greater growing potential and requires less irrigation. It’s a win-win all around!

Who or what inspires you?

My two daughters and husband inspire me every day. I feel that if I’m not working to create a better world for my family, and by extension, my community, then I’m wasting my time.

I have a picture, showing the cycle of marine life, that my daughter Quincy (now 15) drew when she was 6 years old, explaining how if brine shrimp eat plastic instead of plankton, the whole food chain, up to seals and sharks, are impacted. Recently, Zoe (13) created a mobile detailing various types of injustices and intolerance. I believe we can have a positive impact on the world when we truly understand our role. The next generation is our best hope for creating a better tomorrow — that’s inspiring to me.

If you hosted a dinner party for eight, who (living or deceased) would you invite?

I would like to have a multi-generational meal, with great-grandparents from the Old Country — Hungary and Ukraine on my side; Turkey on my husband’s. Wouldn’t it be wonderful for them to see the legacy they left? (Hopefully, they wouldn’t be disappointed.) And how great for us to meet our forebears, who had difficult lives, escaping persecution and economic hardships, working as olive farmers, coal miners, leather tanners and fishermen.

What are your favorite movies?

I don’t get to the movies often. The classics on my list include “Singing in the Rain,” “Those Magnificent Men and Their Flying Machines,” and Pink Panther movies. We recently attended the opening night of “City Slickers Can’t Stay With Me” at La Paloma, which is a great story about a phenomenal running coach. My daughter’s cross-country coach was the director, so that was particularly special.

What is your most prized possession?

In 1989, I left a job on Wall Street and took off travelling through Asia, beginning in the Himalayas. In some remote areas, they hadn’t seen a Caucasian before, and my curly, corkscrew hair was a big curiosity. For me, the 5-month trip, which included China during the Tiananmen Square uprising, was a transition point. I guess I consider the photo album from those travels to be one of my top material possessions. It’s been years since I looked through it, but I’ve always thought that I’d grab that photo album if we had to evacuate quickly.

What do you do for fun?

I love to get our family together, with the dog, and walk to dinner in Encinitas. It’s so great that, from our house, we can walk to the library, post office, Seaside Market, beach, VG’s, etc.

What is it that you most dislike?

I’m disturbed by my girls’ overuse of electronics … look up and experience the world, kids! Tactical experiences in the natural world are so much more transformative.

What would be your dream vacation?

Someday, I’d like to get round-the-world tickets for my family. We’d explore, try new foods, get stomach viruses, communicate with our hands, become patient waiting for buses and trains, and together see how others live.

What is your motto or philosophy of life?

Define your vision and then work to achieve it. To get there, don’t focus on obstacles; look at the possibilities.


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