Words by Christine Dionese | Photos provided by Lisa Barker and Audrey Horn
Lisa Barker didn’t grow up wondering where her next meal was coming from, but food security issues directly affect over 135,000 people — many of them youth — in the Rochester area. Seedfolk City Farm, where Barker serves as director, started as a response to food security with the mission to create sustainable, resourcefulness through food growing. Three years after it began, Seedfolk has transformed into a viable, multi-site urban farm across the city.
Christine Dionese chats with Barker about what’s ahead for winter, Seedfolk’s latest endeavors aimed toward culinary career collaborations — and an exciting development in store for spring 2016.
BTT: What’s happening in the Seedfolk gardens to plan for winter? Have you planted garlic and sold the last harvest at the markets?
Barker: We just finished putting our outdoor growing spaces to bed for the winter. Planting garlic in the fall is one of my absolute favorite things about farming — in the midst of tilling under and thinking about the long winter ahead, it’s encouraging to plant something you know will provide signs of growth as soon as the snow melts.
The Westside Farmers Market and Southwedge Farmers Market ended in mid-October. We were so proud to produce such a large (for us, anyways) yield this year straight through until the end of the season — we focused much more intensively on production this year and successfully grew far more food than in years past. It was so cool to be seen as an actual farm this year, rather than just sort of a novelty — a nice program where kids grow some things.
People used to come to our stand mainly because they knew what we did and liked our mission, but this year we realized people were coming to us primarily because they saw that we had the food they wanted, and then they learned about our mission. We gained a lot of new regular customers that way this year, and that’s one of the things I’m most proud of.
During the winter ahead, we’ll focus more on strategic planning and fundraising. There is always work to be done and lessons to be shared around food; we do cooking lessons through December, garden planning with kids in January and seed-starting in February — so there’s always something! We are lucky to have a core group of awesome kids who dedicate time year-round to help with special events, tabling, talks and so on in the colder months, which is great.
BTT: Loved hearing you quote one of the Seedfolk kids in your TEDx talk last year, “we need to plant more kale so we can make more kale chips.” As their palates expand through growing and learning to prepare meals together, how have the kids’ perceptions on nutrition shifted? How does the idea “the real cost of cheap food” affect your Seedfolk kid-farmers?
Barker: This is a tricky one. We have noticed some of our teens developing more thoughtful approaches to nutrition for sure — one of our participants last summer started taking home leftover produce at the end of Tuesday market to make a weekly healthy meal for her family. This was a big deal to her, because not only had she never cooked for her family until now, but she realized she really wanted to start using healthier cooking options.
We also see how it can be harder to change ingrained eating habits just through, say, a summer-long program — so many times kids have said things like, “I know now that’s not good for me, but I’m still gonna eat it.” Seedfolk offers a workshop where we have kids count ingredients in processed snack foods, then later analyze the ones they don’t recognize or can’t pronounce (which is most of them). It sends a powerful message — they do think it’s crazy to observe (the junk) that’s actually in some of their food, but they still want to eat the snacks and get so upset when we don’t let them. I think the important step, though, is beginning to provide a knowledge base they can work from — at least now the reality behind cheap junk food is something they can begin to think about and articulate.
BTT: Talk about the interaction between the Southwest Area Neighborhood Association’s (SWAN) Growing Green program with the teens in Seedfolk. What food and gardening advice, teaching and knowledge do the Seedfolk kids commonly impart to their younger peers?
Barker: The partnership with the Grow Green program is one of my favorite developments recently — I coordinate both programs. This year, we focused on teaching our teens so they could teach the kids at SWAN effectively. The lessons focus on simple growing concepts like soil composition, plant parts, compost and beneficial insects in soil; they also teach the younger ones how to plant and harvest whatever is in season at the time. Early in the week, we teach the lesson and garden activity to our teens and they teach it to the SWAN kids later in the week. I really enjoyed watching our teens own the position of garden teachers. Some teens who weren’t always as enthusiastic about the garden would get into it when they were the ones in charge. I loved watching these girls who just absolutely hated bugs teaching little kids about how useful they are in the garden.
BTT: In Saby Reyes-Kulkarni’s story for 585 Magazine, you were quoted describing the depth of understanding you endeavor to convey to the kids - tools to grow, cook, eat, teach someone else how to cook and how to sell produce. Is this where the natural extension between the garden and the Seedfolk Store* comes into play?
Barker: From an educational standpoint, simply growing and farming doesn’t necessarily serve the young people we work with as much as approaching the food system from all angles, including processing, cooking and preserving. We’ve partnered with two kitchens to accomplish this: ProsperRochester, (*formerly the Seedfolk Store) and Small World Food. Small World Food, in particular, is such an amazing asset to the Rochester food community. It’s been awesome to watch them grow into what is not only a bakery and fermentary — but a regional hub for local organic producers and a collectively owned one, at that! The folks there are passionate about what they do, so it’s been really cool to bring our kids into that fold. I think introducing kids to — and sometimes challenging them with new perspectives on — food, jobs, community, etc., is something these kind of connections within our network really foster. Our kids have worked once a week at Small World during our programs for the last three years, we sell their products at the Westside Farmers Market and we use their kitchen (and sometimes borrow some of their expertise!) to make our value-added products like pickles and pesto.
BTT: Some of the kale you grew this year was with aquaponic methods, then later transformed into organic juices by Just Juice 4 Life, right?
Barker: We’ve been selling our kale to Just Juice 4 Life for the the last two seasons. I can’t say enough about how much we love working with them! Damaris makes the most delicious juice around and it’s really an honor to supply even just a fraction of the ingredients she uses. Our goal is to eventually grow enough to supply all of the kale she uses for juicing. She goes through so much in a week!
BTT: Are there any restaurants you regularly work with to help employee Seedfolk teens hoping to pursue culinary careers?
Barker: I think the “next steps” part of our program is something we could really work on building up more. We’ve seen several of our youth continue on to other cool opportunities, but I do love the idea of specifically partnering with restaurants from a culinary standpoint. We had one young woman, who worked with us last year, who really excelled at the farmers market. She stepped up and helped out with nearly every booth over the course of the season. This year she was hired by the Westside Farmers Market to manage the market’s co-op booth. She was the first paid youth intern at the market.
Another young man worked in our spring program two years ago and then went on to work at the Gandhi Institute as their garden manager; he also helps take care of about 15 gardens for residents in his neighborhood through a partnership with a local health center. And one of our spring interns is interning now at Small World Food. It’s been great to see how he much he has learned — when we were working over there making pesto recently we saw just how much he’s stepped up as a leader. He helped us a lot with the (pesto) process based on the expertise he’s gained there.
BTT: What’s ahead? Who will Seedfolk be collaborating with in the spring?
Barker: We actually just received some great news for the spring that we are so excited about! We were awarded a grant from The New York State Pollution Prevention Institute (NYSP2I) that will support the creation of the Seedfolk Sustainability Team — two of our youth program staff and two youth team members are exceptionally interested in sustainability education. This team will work with 14 classrooms in two elementary city schools through a 17-week hands-on, educational program where students will explore the benefits of composting as a pollution reduction and soil-improvement technique, while learning how to create and maintain simple composting systems. We’ll be partnering with Community Composting to implement in-classroom composting. We are really trying to build our third site on Plover Street as a large-scale urban composting center and started partnering with Community Composting there next summer. We are so looking forward to a more formal partnership that incorporates not only education, but youth leadership within those classrooms.