Whenever new friends discover our blog for the first time, they invariably ask: How do you find these people?
Here’s one story: Back in 2012, I was working for Reader’s Digest as a copy editor. I loved my team (like Deb!), but I was trying to figure out how to unite my passions for the environment, health, animal welfare, social justice and community into the next step of my career. The food system was the place I thought I could blend all those things and use my skills to make a difference, so I reached out to Jazz Glastra about Victory Garden Initiative’s (VGI) Food Leader Certificate Program. On a chilly winter night, she met me in the Saint’s Snug at County Clare Irish Pub in Milwaukee, which will forever hold a special place in my heart. Jazz told me all about how I’d learn to grow food, organize groups of people, and make a difference starting in my own community. I signed up for the program the next day.
Two and a half years later, I’m now working full-time at VGI, and Jazz has moved on to pursue her Master’s of Science in Environment and Natural Resources with a specialization in Rural Sociology at the Ohio State University. I miss her more or less constantly, so I’m so glad to share part of her story with you.
Jazz went to high school in an agricultural area of Washington state and hated it—the FFA kids in their big trucks blared country music and made it seem like farming was about not caring. After graduation, she went off to Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, planning to get into environmental action or law—until she arrived. At Kenyon, Jazz totally fell in love with religious studies and became disillusioned with the policy world. Before she veered too far, though, she started her first farming internship at an organic farm in Ohio during her sophomore year. It was there that she became intrigued with agriculture and the local food movement.
People with Panache: How did you end up in Milwaukee after college?
JG: I went into college thinking policy and law, and I came out wanting to do more grassroots action on sustainable food. At graduation time, my now-husband and I were looking for a place to move together. He was looking at law schools—oddly enough, he had majored in political science—and I was looking for organizations working on urban agriculture. We have to feed 9.5 billion people by 2050, so we have to grow food where people are eating it, which is increasingly in the cities.
Then, we discovered Milwaukee—Marquette University for Jeremy and a hub of urban agriculture for me.
“Is this what we should be doing? Does this make sense for actually changing the food system the way I want to?”
PWP: So that’s when you started interning at VGI, building communities that grow their own food, right?
JG: I went from intern to program coordinator to program manager, and I learned so much from that experience—from grassroots organizing to creating programs to attending and helping lead initiatives such as the Food Leader Certificate Program. But eventually I realized I wanted to go back to school, because I didn’t get to fully sink my teeth into bigger agricultural issues in college.
I’m excited to be back in Ohio learning about agriculture, the food system, and how policy and society intersect with those things.
PWP: Where do groups like VGI fit in, either just in general, or on your path?
JG: I’m going through another about-face realizing I can maybe be more effective looking at the bigger picture, working for policy organizations or doing research that can inform policy. I’m figuring out where that path is going to lead me next.
PWP: How do you think you can make the biggest difference in your career going forward?
JG: I really got in on the ground floor at VGI and developed some of the programs that exist now. A lot of those programs felt like my baby, and I had been working in the trenches for almost three years. It was becoming almost tunnel vision; I was having a hard time pulling back and thinking more broadly: Is this what we should be doing? Does this make sense for actually changing the food system the way I want to? That stuff is very necessary, but policy and higher-level system change are now what I think will make a bigger, faster difference. Then again, you have to have grassroots infrastructure in place before things can happen, so it’s two sides of the same coin.
PWP: Do you have a new dream job?
JG: I’m still forming an idea of it. But I think what I’d really love to do is use academic-style research, maybe not original but pulling out current science, and make that accessible to the public or usable for policy.
I recently read this article that made me uncomfortable at first. It was about community garden efforts in Milwaukee, written by an academic woman I know there. It was basically accusing nonprofits of reinforcing the system that keeps people of color down, even through their efforts to bring healthy food to the city—not challenging the system. If you bring a community garden into a community with a lot of need, that’s awesome, but why not focus your efforts on figuring out why these people are facing these problems in the first place?
It’s a critique that a lot of popular movements get right now. For example, academics critique food banks for not providing a solution to bigger problems. Through grad school, this is where my attention is turning. Community-based nonprofits teach people job skills, how to grow food, and other things. That is all awesome and super important. But they’re working within the system—not working to change it.
PWP: And there are two levels to that: Meeting the immediate need of hunger, then meeting those greater community needs.
JG: Right. The local, sustainable food movement has addressed some of those bigger, tangible needs. But right now, it isn’t doing as much as it could about policy. Currently, food isn’t really an issue we can vote on. Less than 2 percent of people in America are farmers, while the dominant agricultural industry spends gajillions lobbying Congress for policies that suit them. The alternative food movement is saying we can build gardens, and sure we can, but we can also lobby Congress! Two can play at that game.
PWP: Hell yeah! I went to an event a few weeks ago all about women running for office—we need one of those for the food movement. I’m excited to see where this takes us both next, Jazz. Besides this work, what are some of the things that make you happiest?
JG: My husband, my pets, my friends, mostly people—but food is right up there. That’s kind of why I started on this track. I always wanted to work on environmental issues in some way. It was too big and too scary when I got to college—just too much. But then I learned more about the local food movement. I thought: I can eat delicious things and do stuff for the environment at the same time?! I get so much joy from food—eating, making, baking it. It’s amazing how you can transform something! Flour and water mixed together? That’s disgusting. But all you need to do is let yeast do its thing and bake for awhile and it becomes bread—this amazing, magical food.
Over and over, we see the transformation a single person can make in her community, and we love sharing those women’s stories. Jazz just finished her first year of grad school and will graduate in May 2016, when I will promptly try to coerce her back to work with us in Milwaukee. (Jazz, you have been warned.)
[Photos by Alysse.]