Photo Credit: Molly Haley
As you'll soon discover, Genna is a woman who sees the value in social connections, and knows how to make the most of them. In fact, that's how she wound up on this very blog, after writing us out of the blue and sharing her story (as so many of you do, and we can't thank you enough for it). If you're familiar with FoodCorps, and considering other options because you missed the deadline or were not accepted, Genna will tell you why AmeriCorps VISTA is an alternative worth considering.
When did you know that you wanted to work in food?
My grandparents owned an Italian specialty foods store in Orange, NJ where I spent every day of my early childhood. They stocked their shelves with homemade marinara sauce, ravioli, manicotti, pasta e fagioli (or "fazool," as we call it), and seasonal specialties like pizza dolce for Easter and strufoli for Christmas. My friend Scott, an oral historian and photographer, made a podcast about the role food has played in the lives of my grandmother, my mother, and me for his blog, The Aural Fixation. His podcast does a much better at describing me than I do, so take a listen.
My family life taught me that food and love were equals, but it took me years to realize that I wanted to work in food. My dreams of being a doctor dissipated rather quickly after two years of college chemistry and biology, but my desire to make people happy and well through medicine is being fulfilled much more holistically and beautifully through food. I have always loved to cook, which led to an interest in how food grows, and my current job draws from those two bodies of knowledge.
How did you get your current good food job?
I got my job because I applied to another one. One of the only things I applied for my last semester of college was FoodCorps, a national service program in its first year that works on combating childhood obesity through school garden development and nutrition education. My application got forwarded from FoodCorps National to Maine FoodCorps, my first choice. I didn't hear back for a while, and e-mailed the service site supervisor to inquire when I would. She responded "soon," and when "soon" came around, it was a rejection. Despite feeling disheartened, I e-mailed the service site supervisor again to express my continued interest in the program in case anyone backed out. In July, I got a voicemail from the service site supervisor asking if I wanted to take an AmeriCorps*VISTA position that involved service-learning and farm-to-school programming. Yes! Yes, I did! So be persistent and hold your passion close.
How did your previous work or life experience prepare you for a good food job?
Previous job experiences all lend helpful lessons: my days as a prep cook in my college dining hall taught me how to respect kitchen personalities; being a tour guide at my school taught me how to convince people to love something that I loved; and working as a neuroscience research assistant honed my project coordination skills without my realizing it. My VISTA position at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension continues to prepare me for future jobs in the food world. My supervisor and our colleagues embody collaboration, vying for a limited number of resources yet all working on incredible programming to educate the youth of Maine about gardening and healthy eating.
The following advice is practically a given, but remember how important it is to build and utilize your social capital. Classmates from Haverford College make up the core of my network so far, and they are brimming with talent. My farmer buddies this summer were looking for an artist to redesign their logo and help them create seed packets for their new seed business, All Good Things Organic Seeds, so I connected them with my friend Goda who has brought the farmers' ideas to life. When one of the non-profits I work with needed a graphic designer to create publicity materials, I immediately thought of my friend Duncan, who made (and continues to make) the posters for one of Haverford's academic centers and now writes for The Fader.
What was the greatest obstacle you had to overcome in pursuing your Good Food Job dream?
My biggest obstacle, quite honestly, was my own self-doubt. I majored in Psychology and wrote my thesis about the cognitive psychology of dance and music interactions. This topic isn't exactly "food job" material, and instead of focusing on the fact that my days were punctuated with making meals, reading food blogs, and planning the next meeting of my cooking club, I focused my thoughts on all of the reasons someone else would be more qualified than me.
I WWOOFed on Davis Farms in Roberta, GA for a good portion of my spring break my senior year of college, and that experience compelled me to spend my summer farming as well. I found Mano Farm in Ojai, CA and my two months there as a farm apprentice were very centering. I read books like The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan (finally), Eat Here: Homegrown Pleasures in a Global Supermarket by Brian Halweil, and The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved: Inside America's Underground Food Movements by Sandor Katz, taught the farmers how to preserve food via water bath canning, and learned a ton about growing food and saving seed. The pace of farming life allowed much time for introspection and conversation, which helped me work through my self-doubt and own my interests as valuable knowledge and skills, not just pet hobbies.
What can you identify as the greatest opportunities in food right now?
Find a niche business and just go for it. There are a few new businesses in Midcoast Maine that found a hole in the market and focused their attentions there. Sheepscot General Store at Uncas Farms repurposed an old natural foods store into a place for local growers, artisans, and artists to sell and exhibit their work, and their business (based on my observations alone) is growing. They are also orchestrating a multi-farm CSA that will make the products of smaller growers accessible to a larger market.
Also, bartering. I met a sheep farmer who is finding herself amidst freezers full of lamb bacon she is willing to trade. Talk about an opportunity!
If you could be compensated for your work with something other than money, what would it be?
Books. Prosciutto. A rustic, charming cottage with a big garden like the one Miss Honey had in Matilda. Yearlong excursions anywhere, but especially Iceland, Sardinia, and Tunisia.
Do you dream about working as a service member for folks in need? What are the barriers that prevent you from realizing that goal? Share your thoughts in the comments section.