And then the self-doubt crept in…
Which prompted a “hive mind” query on Facebook…and that led to a very different kind of afternoon than previously planned.
Back story: several months ago, I agreed to give a short presentation to students at Foothill Technology High School in Ventura, California. Foothill is a technology magnet located in Ventura Unified School District, a leader in farm-to-school and garden/nutrition education. I’ve worked with Foothill teacher Kurt Miller previously, helping his class secure resources for a garden. Kurt, who teaches health, geography and world history, has conceptualized a “Ventura Eats” program in collaboration with a group of University of California Cooperative Extension advisors. These University researchers – who are assigned to Ventura County and work across a range of issues in agriculture, natural resources and human health and nutrition – are presenting information about a number of food system topics in upcoming weeks to Foothill students. This work is part of UC’s Global Food Initiative (#GlobalFood), which seeks to address one of the most compelling issues of our time…how to sustainably and nutritiously feed a world population estimated to reach 8 billion.
My task? Kick off the series by providing an overview of the food system. My presentation? On PowerPoint and ready to go, exactly twenty minutes in length, as requested, leaving ten minutes for questions and discussion. And then the self-doubt crept in…none of us want to be boring. We all want to be – if not cool – at least relevant.
I turned to Facebook and frantically typed a plea:
“Need hive mind…I have twenty minutes to speak to 20-25 high school students and explain what a food system is and what the key issues are. Other goal? Tying local to global and fostering appreciation (hopefully) of the incredible food abundance in Ventura County.
I want to ignite thinking and inspire, not overwhelm.
What would be the one or two key points you’d want to convey if this were your first/last/only opportunity to speak with them?
Thank you in advance.”
I immediately began receiving responses. Full disclosure: my Facebook friends are heavily weighted to those who actively participate in the food system in a variety of ways, all wonderful, important and inspiring. Not surprisingly, I quickly received some very good answers. With permission, I’m sharing some of them here.
The first to respond was former UC colleague Dr. Sal Mangiafico, who is now with Rutgers Extension. His response was simply to employ Facebook’s new “wow” emoticon. As Sal responded via emoticon – and I felt his support – farmer Chris Sayer, who is also an outstanding agricultural educator, jumped in with this:
“Food cultivation, preparation, and consumption are foundational activities of civilization. All that we do rests on that base. If it is strong we can prosper… If not, then we cannot. It is a global system… That is both good and bad. But activities at the local level add resilience and understanding to that system.”
My neighbor Susie Johnson is an expert gardener. She shared this advice: “At the local level, urge them to get their hands in the soil by planting something from seed and watching it grow, and also, encourage them to tour a local farm. For me, a first hand experience is always the best teacher!” Kat Merrick, who provides education about all things local in our community, suggested this: “Field to fork is always my talk with students. Understanding all the links to their plate and how eating local and in season is the way mother nature intended. Best of luck to you!” Another neighbor, Nancy Nazario (a retired social worker) wrote this:
“Food for profit, food for nutrition…how they collide in the US, with nutrition losing out.”
Pattie Baker, one of the best storytellers/writers I know, blew me away with this statement:
“…bring a fork. tell them that’s how they vote for the world they want.”
I received responses from several academics. James Brooks, an anthropology and history professor at UC Santa Barbara, provided this important observation: “Anthropologists might talk about the central role of feasting in human affairs. Why have we always wanted to feed others? It’s a bond and a challenge in a single event.” Amy McFarland, who teaches sustainable food systems at the university level, left this comment:
“I would talk about how good food is a solution to a lot of problems – health, environment, flavor, culture, religious. There are many paths to good food – and it intersects with everyone’s lives at minimum 3 times a day.”
Kristofer Young, a health professional, was also focused on the connection between food and health, suggesting:
“You might mention that few factors have greater impact on gene expression than food. Every aspect of one’s life is massively shaped by what one eats.”
Kathy Cook, a public health educator and local producer (she raises dairy goats), said this about individual empowerment:
“So many great ideas here … and it’s not just the big farms … even a person with a tomato plant in a tub, a small garden, an orange tree or those who are trying to live on the food they raise/produce. We all impact the food industry … what we eat, what we buy, what we produce.”
Warren Wood, a historian and terrific classroom educator, suggested this approach: “Bring a hamburger, taco, pizza (whatever) from the local hangout for the students. Take it apart and talk to them about how the food gets there.”
This reminded me of a very interesting and popular activity my former colleague Susan Gloeckler used to do with both youth and adults. The activity, developed by Texas A&M as part of its Junior Master Gardener program, is called “Hamburger Plant”; the goal is to help participants become aware of our dependence on plants as the originator of most of our food.
My cousin, Mary Wellen Christie, liked Warren’s suggestion and added this: “Yes! Use a post-it-note for each ingredient and then stick it to a map. If the food is local, there’s less shipping, less pollution. If it’s big name fast food (Pizza Hut?) what paths have the ingredients traveled??” Later, her son Steve, a trained chef who is now graduating from the University of New Hampshire with a degree in sustainable agriculture and food systems, provided this comment: “Do multiple foods, to demonstrate how far reaching it is, and also enough for them to have a quick bite.” (I take their advice; in addition to other enterprises, they farm).
One of the best agricultural educators I know is Mary Kimball; I’ve written about her work at the Center for Land-Based Learning. She offered this: “You have 20 minutes. Keep the messages short and simple, with issues that impact them. High school teachers always tell us that the way to connect to the students is through food. Our coordinators always use food to start conversations. Bring in some fresh produce, some food items that are packaged, talk about what they know and what matters to them. It is healthy? Do they know where the food they eat is grown? Is there anyone in the group that has a parent or relative working in Ag, trucking, food processing? Keep it real. Ask them questions. What they know. What they’ve heard.”
“Explain that Ventura County growers ship to 54 countries internationally. Ventura County growers are feeding people all over the world. For instance, Limoneira ships lemons to 19 different countries. Their largest international market is Asia. I could go on and on.”
Audra Mulkern of the Female Farmer Project shared that she “spoke to a group of 20 or so FFA kids and talked about the role of the farmer. I just wrote an essay that hasn’t been published yet. Maybe I’ll shoot you a copy to read to them…”
Another agriculturalist that I admire is Annika Forester (she was formerly with the California Strawberry Commission). She focused on the possibility for students to play a future role in agriculture…i.e., through careers:
“Tell them about the abundant career opportunities in ag. Right here on the Central Coast. Ag needs bright minds, innovative thinkers, outside-the-box doers, people committed to this PLACE, the land, the people that work it, our neighbors, and our future. Ag is so much more than slinging dirt in the field (or whatever 2-dimensional picture has filled in young people’s minds). There are amazing possibilities in: high-tech, integrated pest management, ecology & ecosystem management, operations, logistics, sustainability, social responsibility, human development. There is a HUGE need for all professions from finance to IT to public policy, water and land use policy….the possibilities are immense. Ag is SEXY! Most of all, if you meet anyone who is bilingual in Spanish there is a JOB waiting for them tomorrow in about 10 companies I can tell them about today We are on the verge of a massive paradigm shift in how food is produced (if these young’ns didn’t notice that the US became a net food-importing nation in their lifetimes). They can get in to one of the most rewarding, meaningful, and exciting industries that exists: conjuring food out of the dirt, and getting it to people who need and want it…”
A few things struck me about this experience. First, social tools are valuable for group think. Second, other people inform and improve my work…and I am so very grateful for that. And the final thing is that most of us have the opportunity to be food and ag educators, in all sorts of ways, in all sorts of places. We’re passionate about the food system. And just maybe, it’s our individual and collective involvement and passion on the education front that ultimately transforms the food system.
And so this afternoon, I scrapped my plan and came up with a new one. Late in the day, I visited a farm on Ventura’s peri-urban interface and spent some time chatting with farmer Edgar Terry. I purchased two kinds of just-picked strawberries from his family’s stand (Fronteras and Albion, both UC varieties), loaded them into my car and then headed home, filled with a sense of wonder about the place I live…and excitement about being able to share my passion – and strawberries grown by the Terry family – with a younger generation.
I’ll let you know how it goes.