By Kate Cebik
“So, what do you do on the farm?” Linette Mindoza, one of Common Ground’s summer farm interns, and CGHS graduate from the class of 2014, is always surprised that this is the first question people ask her. “Well, we grow things,” she starts. “It surprises me how many people have never been to a farm at all,” she tells me. “And everyone assumes we have cows. People also are confused–but interested–to learn that it is an educational farm.”
Jeffrey Nelson, another farm intern, shares this sentiment. “I’ve seen how people view farming differently in different communities. Here in the Northeast,” he tells me:
When I tell people I work on a farm, they tend to think like E-I-E-I-O, pigs and overalls. They think it isn’t a good job. They ask me, why would you leave a ‘good’ job to go work on a farm?”
Jeffrey, who earned a degree in economics from Southern Connecticut State University, decided to follow his passion. He’s always been interested in medicinal herbs, ancient cultures, and mysticism.
He admits to being a bit of a conspiracy theorist when it comes to wondering about what They are putting in our food. All of these things came together as he learned more about farming and food systems.
Our third intern, Jess Zielinski Meffert, had a very successful stint in the air force, but was drawn back to the land. She returned to civilian life and earned a Bachelor’s from the University of New Haven in Sustainability Studies. You may recognize Jess from her previous work at Common Ground, both with Kids Unplugged and on the farm.
Though our three interns found their way here via three very different paths, they arrived at the farm with some shared ideas about food that go well beyond the soil and crops.
As a former CGHS student and the daughter of staff, Linnette has been around Common Ground for a long time. “I went to summer camp and we did campfires and night hikes,” she recalls, “and a lot of my my classes here especially influenced my future. Environmental justice with [social sciences teacher Brian] Kellahan, for example, sparked my interest in social justice and food security. I’m now majoring in Urban & Community Studies at UCONN, focusing on food insecurity and social justice. I’m interested in practical ways to solve food insecurity, like Common Ground & CitySeed’s Mobile Market.”
Jess is also drawn to the Mobile Market, which began as a senior project the year Linette graduated. Jess tells me,
I love the idea of working with the Mobile Market and collaborating with New Haven neighborhoods to find joint solutions to access to fresh, local, healthy food.”
[When working on the Mobile Market] we come to Common Ground and load it up with fresh produce from our farm, sometimes supplementing with goods from other farms if we need to. The we take it to neighborhoods like Newhallville, to senior centers” where it can be difficult to access farmers markets and other sources of healthy local produce. (See the Mobile Market schedule here.)
Access to healthy foods is also important to Jeffrey. Last year, he spent several months wwoofing (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms). “It’s a really cool opportunity to travel to farms and work on the farms. They provide you with excellent farm fresh meals and housing. I went to Arizona (two farms), Colorado, and Oregon. I was struck by how big sustainability and healthy eating is in these communities. In the cities out there, I found that there were always fruits and vegetables within walking distance. You found healthy foods everywhere.
Linette agrees that access is so important. “It’s really cool how these programs bring fresh, healthy food to people who don’t have access, and how they teach about the foods, like how Shannon includes a recpie with the student farmshare.” Our farmshare, open to CGHS students and their families, was a program started by our own Farmer Shannon a few years ago as a way to extend the bounty of the farm to our students in a very real and practical way.
One thing I like here is how we try to make food relatable,”
Linette adds. “That’s what I want to do. Here Dishaun grew gandules [also known as pigeon peas] because they are a staple in the diet of Latinos, and we have a large Latino population. Growing familiar foods is a good way to bring people in and make them comfortable trying new foods.”
Food access and an understanding of food systems was a strong theme in all my conversations with the farm interns. Jeffrey adds, “It’s weird to me that a lot people don’t have a good idea about where their food comes from. I wish they saw the big picture and the impact of our food systems. People fail to realize how the food industry ties into poverty. I feel like if people could take back their food systems it would reduce poverty.”
Jess also grappled with the difficulty of the current food system and its effects. “I wish people understood the cost of food. The fresh, local food is expensive, and worth it. I haven’t studied it but we need to make it more affordable as much as we can.
But we also need to understand that you are worth investing in–this is what you put in your mouth, in your body. That matters.”
Money is hard for everyone, but I really think it’s important to prioritize good food. I’m shocked when someone will spend $4 for a latte but a carton of eggs–a whole carton of fresh eggs–is considered expensive.”
All three have found the farm to be an important, grounding (no pun intended…well maybe just a little) place. “I like working on the farm and getting my hands in the dirt,” Jess says. “It really is a community here. I am welcomed and I get hugs when I leave. It is a second family. We embrace our larger community, and I get to work with New Haven to make people more happy and healthy.” Jeffrey finds this work to be very fulfilling, “Connecting with nature, a lot of spiritual energy on the farm. It’s a positive atmosphere with positive energy. It’s important to see where your food comes from. I like being able to grow my own food and save money, so I can put my time and money where it matters, into my family and my community.” And those people who wondered about his job choices? “It’s been interesting to see people’s views change as a I post pictures of me at my work and they begin to see it differently. They start to see its value through me.”
Our interns are doing impressive work here. They are, as Linette said, growing things, for sure. But, as corny as it sounds, they are growing more than just the harvest crops. They are growing connections to other farms by working with Massaro and Yale Farms. They are planting ideas and working for positive change in our world.
After this internship, Linette will return to her work at UCONN, and hopes to use her new network and her current teachers to connect her with more opportunities like this one. “And,” she adds, “if I had a million dollars, I would buy land for community gardens and teach people about what they eat and how it grows.” Maybe that next Powerball will lead to local gardens!
Jess is interested in deepening her work with Common Ground, perhaps extended out more to the high school and nonprofit side of things. “I’ve worked on the national and state level and am most interested now on focusing on local community,” she says.
Jeffrey is curious to travel this cold season and do some farming in Africa. “I’d love to work in underprivileged communities there and teach them farming, start farms there,” he says. “It would also be great to get a grant for a community farm in New Haven,” he adds.
After meeting with these three impressive people, I have no doubt they will continue on to great things, and I feel fortunate Common Ground has been able to be a part of that important work.