Field Trip (Literally)

By | September 01, 2012
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Field Trip (Literally)
Illustration by Andrew Spalding

FoodWorks interns bring fresh 
perspective, ideas to local food scene

For two months this past summer, beginning with fog-chilled mornings and ending with withered hydrangeas, 13 Middlebury College students and one Monterey Institute graduate student road-tripped down from dairy-farming Vermont and descended upon Louisville, Kentucky. Each student, from naïve dreamer to distressed graduate, held an internship in a new program called FoodWorks Louisville, hoping to become innovators in the city’s local food scene.

Founded by Rowan Claypool and Ann Curtis, whose projects Teach Kentucky and Bulldogs in the Bluegrass have gathered students in Louisville for the past 14 years, FoodWorks brought fresh faces and an outside perspective into a changing food culture. Since the 1998 tobacco Master Settlement Agreement (MSA), many small family farms have transitioned away from tobacco in favor of other crops, creating a unique niche in the Kentucky agriculture business. By helping out at each level, from farming and distribution to restaurants and policy, the students became immersed in this local movement.

“We didn’t personally know much about the food system going on,” explained Claypool, “but we saw an incredible opportunity to add zeal to a new idea.”

Through a once-a-week activity called Fifth Day, led by high school teacher and local food fanatic Joseph Franzen, the FoodWorks team began by looking at the Louisville food system from the ground up — literally. The first Fifth Day began with sustainable composting at Breaking New Grounds, turning organic waste from Heine Brothers’ coffee grounds into compost. Eight weeks later, Fifth Day ended with a discussion on mindful eating at the grave of Colonel Sanders, after a whirlwind day of restaurant tours. Indeed, it became clear from the start that a strong local food movement was already taking place in Louisville.

As Fifth Day picked up momentum, hosts from earlier Fifth Days began showing up for other activities, intrigued to see a different side of the food system. Maggie Keith of Foxhollow Farm came to Fern Creek High School to learn about food studies in the classroom. One of Franzen’s high school students attended the restaurant day, discovering Chef Bruce Ucán’s passion for local ingredients at the Mayan Café.

“We found the tapestry of the local food system was woven in such a way that the relationships really connect,” explained Curtis. In this way, FoodWorks became what Curtis calls “connective tissue” for the local food culture.

During the rest of the week, each student worked at a separate internship, from Grasshoppers Distribution to Seed Capital Kentucky. Lela Shepherd, who interned at Rainbow Blossom while living on Pumpkin Auerbach’s organic (uncertified) family farm, was hired to create a business plan for Auerbach’s 70 chickens.

“It was a pet project of Pumpkin’s that got way out of control,” explained Shepherd. “I’m in charge of incubating the eggs … the cat got the last batch.” Shepherd, a self-described “city girl,” has learned the ways of farm life. She wakes up early to collect eggs; wash, package and date them; and take 40 dozen each week to Rainbow Blossom Natural Foods Market, where the free-range eggs fly off the shelves. She also picks up the food waste and compost and delivers it to the stores.

“I always thought that I’d want chickens one day,” said Shepherd. “Now I know how to do it.”

At Creation Gardens, Maren Granstrom learned about local farming from the other end of the spectrum. Granstrom visited many conventional farms while interviewing farmers who sell to the company. As a supplier for many Louisville restaurants, Creation Gardens needs to offer local produce in bulk at a competitive price. Granstrom also interviewed representatives from Kentucky Proud and Community Farm Alliance, and a number of chefs.

“I’ve gotten to talk to people I never would have otherwise,” said Granstrom. “The farmers are so friendly, and they’re happy to chat … I feel good about buying from these farmers after talking to them. They’re supporting their families and their employees. A lot of these family farms were passed down for generations, and have been growing vegetables for a long time.”

While these farm-based internships have educated Shepherd and Granstrom about the agricultural aspect of food, several internships focused directly on food education.

Sarah Barnhart and Nina Cameron worked at Louisville Metro Public Health and Wellness, creating the curriculum for a pilot program next summer called Youth Harvest Louisville, which focuses on food literacy. A small selection of high school students will work three days a week, receive personal training and volunteer at places like food shelters and farms. At the end of the summer, these students will bring food literacy back to their own high schools by creating school gardens or cooking classes for their peers.

“Earlier this summer I got an opportunity to work with YMCA at a leadership conference,” said Barnhart. “Nina and I arrived, fresh, not knowing anything, and discovered it’s kind of cultish! People run around with fake darts, and shoot you in the neck!” she laughed. “It was a steep learning curve, leading high school students in discussion, getting them to talk and open up. Those were some five intense days.”

Similarly, Emma Burke worked as a garden camp counselor for Sustainable Agriculture of Louisville, teaching kids how to harvest fruit and vegetables.

“It’s totally random who’ll show up each week,” explained Burke. They come from all over Louisville — Crescent Hill kids, Latin American immigrants from Casa Latina who just immigrated from Guatemala, mixed with Highland kids, Old Louisville kids … ” Parents enjoy sending their children to the garden for an educational aspect they don’t get in school. Their kids learn to cook with the garden produce, do dishes, sweep and clean up.

“It’s nice for the kids to be in the garden, doing chores,” said Burke. “There’s a sense of teamwork, even when the kids are too young to really do anything. I’ll tell them, ‘Go weed!’”

Emily Blair, who interned at Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest, planned another food education project for Louisville’s youth: an edible garden. The garden will contain a variety of features, from native prairie grass to an edible forest filled with edible berries, leaves and ramps. A wide range of visitors are expected, from school groups to families, so Blair made sure the garden would exceed accessibility standards, while refining the initial design and planning which materials would be suitable.

“I made sure the paths were accessible for those with mobility difficulties, and that the garden would still be interesting for people with visual impairments. If you can’t see a leaf, you should be able to smell it and touch it. No one realized that raised beds for wheelchairs don’t really exist so I designed one.”

The educational aspect of each internship compelled the interns to look at food with new and often conflicting perspectives. “I don’t think I’ve ever thought about food as much as I have in the past few weeks,” said Barnhart. “For me, I don’t really care if it’s local — that sounds bad, I know. But at the end of the day, I’m more of a healthy-food person. Local tends to be more expensive, and often unaffordable.” At first, the interns found it easy to dismiss the expense of local eating as a food fashion, especially when the nicest restaurants in town were the ones serving it. “In some ways it freaked me out when [a Louisville chef] told us that he doesn’t need to boast that his food is local,” said Granstrom. “Is it because local is natural now, or already passé?”

Yet meeting the farmers behind local labels served as a reminder of the difficult life of a sustainable grower. Most interns agreed that local food makes for a better, healthier option than food that has traveled 1,500 miles cross-country. Yet issues of poverty, food deserts, accessibility, sustainability and pleasure began to complicate the not-so-simple concept of local food. “We’ve only seen one side of the local food scene here,” explained Granstrom. “Having lived in Vermont my whole life, I haven’t thought about access or food justice before. I’d barely heard of food deserts.” “I hadn’t,” said Blair.

“We’ve gotten a very particular perspective, and it’s tricky to figure out,” mused Burke. “That said, people here are so passionate at every level of the food system, from Ivor [Chodkowski] and Maggie [Keith], to retail and distributors. They’re making local food a broader phenomenon and not just a niche. That’s what’s making local food happen.” Blair agreed. “Kentucky is proud of its state identity. It just makes sense to support your community. It’s not necessarily healthier to eat locally; it’s community-based eating.”

“It makes local food becoming a mainstream thing in Louisville feel like it could really happen,” said Burke. FoodWorks plans to continue learning from Louisville’s local food system next year, and for many more years down the road, as the city itself continues to expand its local food culture.

“I came down here thinking I’d figure out what my place in the local food system would be,” said Granstrom thoughtfully. “I haven’t really found it. I don’t want to be a farmer or a produce manager or a food policy maker. Is it enough just to be a shopper, making conscientious decisions at the grocery or farmers’ market?”

This question lingers as the Middlebury students pack up their bags, their cooking utensils, papers and trowels, preparing to return to Vermont. These questions of local, sustainable, affordable, accessible and communal food may go unanswered for now, but they persist.

Burke, who has graduated and plans to work in a bakery, has her own deceivingly simple answer.

“In the end, food is about sharing. Not to sound super corny or anything, but why else do we cook?”

Kaylen Baker, the FoodWorks intern for Edible Louisville and the Bluegrass Region, is headed off to a suburb of Paris to teach English to French children. Her food education will likely continue to nourish there.

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