In my former “life” in the Capital Region of New York, during graduate school and figuring out a career path, I was able to work in a passion of mine- food justice and access. I even wrote my graduate thesis on youth development and food justice so it was a joy to work in the field (pun very much intended). I had a few hats that I wore: urban agriculture project assistant director, garden volunteer and youth coordinator and trainer, mobile vegetable market assistant coordinator, nutrition educator, recipe developer and cook. Or in other words: growing, buying, slinging, cooking, and talking about healthy foods.
The biggest takeaways of my experience, that permeates my work with Nspiregreen, was the need for knowledgeable people that can relate to communities to connect the dots. In this case, it was connecting dots for people in terms of:
- Where their food came from and how it was grown OR how to grow it and
- Healthy food could be easy to make and could also be tasty
Many people I worked with and spoke to can think of plants growing in a field and understand the concept of farms, they can see produce for sale at a grocery store, and they can think of prepared dishes and foods they enjoy; but generally these things stay compartmentalized in their minds. Often understanding of the life cycle of that produce, or food systems, from seed to stomach is lost. I’ll be writing this in two parts, today I’ll cover the first point: understanding food systems.
The teens I worked with at the urban agriculture garden year after year were often taken aback when I would pick a cucumber off of the vine, take a bite or slice some off to share it as a snack. “Uh, don’t we need to do something to it?” one kid said. “Other than wash the dirt off, nope!”, I’d say. We’re talking about food that they helped grow with their own hands and hard work, but they didn’t immediately see it as food. To them, these were plants, and you don’t just eat random plants. Produce came from shiny cases in the grocery store and were periodically spritzed with water.
To further help them make the connection we would hold an informal cooking class every Friday, sometimes with a local chef, where we would harvest our crops, wash them, then make some lunch together. Often we would have them experiment with mixing ingredients and creating dishes. I even taught them how to can vegetables (Spicy Pickled Carrots) in one class. It took a little nudging and bartering to try new things, but most of them liked at the very least one thing we made throughout the summer.
During their time in the garden as part of their jobs, we would have activities about the current food system. This included visiting farms, grocery stores, watching documentaries, and having discussions about our experiences. On visits to farms they could learn about dairy production, raising chickens and pigs for meat and other produce operations, as well as see agriculture or related sciences as a viable career option. On very hot days, we would huddle inside a local school and watch documentaries about monocultures, large scale factory farming, and processed foods with a prize given out every time someone heard a certain buzzword to keep them from falling asleep. One activity that everyone loved was a scavenger hunt in a grocery store that included items like: list all of the countries or states where the apples are from, find your favorite breakfast cereal and write in what order number “sugar” is listed as the ingredient, find an item produced within the Capital Region, etc.
At the end of the summer, they had successfully learned:
- To grow and harvest food using organic methods
- To cook with produce and make healthy recipes
- To determine where their foods were coming from
- The impacts of food from far away and large factory farms
- The importance to buy from local farmers or producers wherever possible
- The importance of healthy food for the human body
- That access to healthy food was a social justice issue
Also by the end of the summer, they were regularly taking home the food we were growing or sitting down to snack on a cucumber as well.
Christine E. Mayeur is an urban planner with a unique set of skills and interests. She has been called a “renaissance woman” by her coworkers and is interested in all things creative and challenging. Christine uses her history of working with communities through grass-roots organizations along with her planning skills to help plan transportation systems that meet the needs of all users.