For over two decades, the Multicultural Exchange for Sustainable Agriculture (MESA) has promoted community food systems through educational programs and food justice projects.
Along the way, the Berkeley, California-based organization has redefined methods for providing agricultural education and support by creating a network of farmers and food activists. Its Bay Area Farmer Training Program (BAFT) is an example. The three-month program includes hands-on farmer training, online learning, and mentorship for underserved and overburdened beginning farmers including women farmers, farmers of color, queer farmers, immigrant farmers, and formerly incarcerated farmers
But rather than letting participants fend for themselves after graduation, MESA this year established its Educator Circle to ensure that alums would be kept in the loop regarding a variety of agriculture interests.
The Educator Circle is run by Shelley Hawkins, a member of the 2017 BAFT cohort and now MESA staff member. After years of working in the food industry, she wanted more information about where our food comes from and how it connects us to society.
“Some of that connection,” she said, “stems from growing up in a family where we didn’t always have a lot, but when we did, having meals together, breaking bread together, was a very special thing.”
The Educator Circle supports projects that members started while in the BAFT program. Participants present the projects on which they are working and request funding from MESA for specific aspects of their work. Broadly, most of the participants are focused on creating food sovereignty in communities excluded by design in our current system.
“It’s less about what we have access to and more about how do we create the realities that we want to be living in,” said Hawkins. “And ultimately, lead us to food sovereignty and not having to rely on systems that seek to not have our best interests at heart.”
Listening to Alums
After talking with Farmer Training alums about how MESA could best support them, it became clear that instead of using MESA funds to create something new, those resources could simply be applied to projects the grads were currently pursuing.
“MESA had initial ideas of how this could go, and what I really appreciate is their being open to hearing what our needs are,” said Courtney Gonzales, Educator Circle member and co-founder of the East Bay Farmers Collective.
Educator Circle meetings, like the projects of the participants, reshape ideas of what work and education look like. The group meets in MESA’s office, in an old church in Berkeley (which still operates as a church throughout the week). They share the space with community groups and afterschool programs, and so on evenings when the Educator Circle gathers, elementary schoolers are running down the halls heading home.
Hawkins lets everyone know that this is not your usual work environment.
“I come from a family where if you’re going to have people at your house after five o’clock, you’ve got to feed them,” she said. So, when the Educator Circle comes together, there’s always food, and true to the name of the group, they sit in a circle.
When we meet in person there’s food,” said Gonzales. “So you know it’s not just business. We’re sitting down, we’re eating together and we’re connecting. I think that’s a really important piece being able to cultivate and grow your own community with like-minded folks who want to create alternatives to what we have. MESA’s programs have created spaces for us to connect, build our vision, and receive support to manifest that vision.”
Connecting Culture and Cooking
After breaking bread, Educator Circle members get down to business. Zeida Flores, for example, wants to create a positive narrative around immigrant food experiences.
“I want the kids to be proud of who they are and where they come from, and not feel ashamed of what they are eating — what they are eating at home is better than the 99 cent grocery store, or at the fast-food truck or wherever,” she said.
In a state where Latinx people represent the largest demographic group, the food offered in high school cafeterias doesn’t reflect the cultural majority. It’s still a mix of burgers, pizza and chicken sandwiches. Along with connecting Oakland high school students to healthy food and teaching them how to cook, Flores wants to uplift the positive eating habits that are a hallmark of Latinx culture.
An immigrant from a family of farmers in Jalisco, with a background in early childhood education and sociology, Flores joined the BAFT program after noticing that the food in the U.S. was taking a toll on her health. “I realized what I was eating before in Mexico, it was better, healthier and was just fresh fruits and vegetables that we would pick from the field,” said Flores.
Spurred by a desire to reconnect with the healthy food of her home, Flores, through the BAFT program, decided to share her connection with food with the high schoolers. She grows food her family grew in Jalisco — four types of corn, melons, pumpkins, sunflowers and other squash.
One of the issues of food deserts — or food apartheid — is that the food available does not have cultural relevance for the communities that live in the area.
“What I want to highlight is that a lot of us are from places where culturally, our staple foods are deeply nourishing, nutritional things that we eat,” said Hawkins. “And now, as our families are living in these cities, it is really hard for us to come by those traditional things that we’d be eating, that would be nourishing to our soul and to our body.”
By having funds from MESA for ingredients and finding space to grow her own food at Laney College, a community college in Oakland, Flores — who doesn’t have a car or driver’s license — can cook and share this food. Her cooking classes take a holistic, no-waste approach to the food. In a recent lesson, she made tostadas and horchata with the students, preparing chicken tinga for the omnivores and pumpkin tinga for the vegan tostadas. For the horchata recipe, she used pumpkin seeds to make a vegan horchata.
The East Bay Farmers Collective (EBFC) is a farm project of inner-city landless women, trans and nonbinary people who are also BAFT alumni. Courtney Gonzales co-founded the project along with Marcella Sadlowski, Nadia Pérez, Sandra Frost, and with support from Logan Henderson and Kyle Thompson. The collective connected through MESA to create a collaborative project that supports the other work they are all doing — this on top of one or more jobs a person.
“We are growing food and medicinal plants to support our respective projects and businesses, and also providing food and herbal, or medicinal, plants for the community,” said Gonzales. EBFC prioritizes women, trans, fem, people of color and indigenous folks in choosing where to share their produce.
Through the Educator Circle, EBFC applied for funds to build out its infrastructure and operations and to support the educational side of the collective. “The Educator Circle very much furthers the work we’re doing because we’re getting, one, resources for supplies and, two, we’re connecting with people who want to help work the land with us,” said Gonzales.
The group plans to offer Farm Days, an opportunity for people to work the land while learning about technical farming information such as seed saving or harvesting and storing medicinal plants. This allows members of the collective to share their knowledge, while also connecting with the community to work the land together. All the members of the collective have additional jobs on the side, so building out the community involvement only strengthens what they can accomplish.
“We’re all really coming together to do this because this is how we want to live,” said Gonzales. “We’re not able to fully do that right now — we have limited access to land and resources.” Connecting through MESA to form the Collective allows the members room to create a landscape that was not previously available to them.
“That’s part of our whole point, is really building out support and networks for an alternative vision for how people access food and access medicine,” said Gonzales.
The Educator Circle will continue to evolve and grow as the needs of the alumni and their projects expand — and even next year it may not function the same way. One of the hopes is for the Educator Circle members to offer training to current BAFT students.
“What I want the Educator Circle to be is a community-governed entity that MESA is supporting, but is mostly governed and facilitated by the community of BAFT alums,” said Hawkins.
The one thing that is certain is that the future of the Educator Circle will be mapped by listening and collective intelligence over home-cooked meals.