2017 KALA CUERINGTON
PROGRAM MANAGER, EDUCATION OUTSIDE
Kala’s story is inspiring in a multitude of ways, from entering into the work force during the 2008 recession, to letting a part-time job carry her into her ‘life’s work’, to recognizing how food and nature transcend economic and/or racial differences, and allowing challenges on the national level to help her hone in on how she can make a local impact. Through her work at Education Outside, and beyond, Kala is using all of life’s experiences, good and bad, to create real change.
When did you know that you wanted to work in food?
I moved from Los Angeles to New York City for college and after a stint in music business, I ultimately majored in sociology. This was my first time stepping into seeing the world as greater than the sum of its parts. As a Black woman I was always aware of social norms and injustice, but studying it was something new. Over time I realized that topics like deviance, counter culture, space, and community could all be explored in depth.
My mom was always an amazing chef and as a college student I tried to cook like her – over time, I slowly became half the chef she is. In school I did a short documentary on peers who were on food stamps which solidified my interest in the overlap between my sociology degree and my passion for food.
The moment that I realized I wanted to work specifically with kids and food/nature was as a volunteer in a 3rd grade classroom in the Bronx. The kids were growing beans in the middle of Winter under a small grow lamp, and they prepared a basic bean salad that consisted of canned beans, bell peppers that they chopped, and Italian dressing. The LOVED it, and it was because they knew what a growing bean looked like and because they prepared it themselves. That’s when I fell in love with the idea that experience and opportunity to engage with food and nature could create life changing moments for all kids, not just ones with privileged.
How did you get your current good food job?
I got my current job at Education Outside through networking (We’re currently looking for new corps members! Please be in touch if you’re interested). I’ve been in the Bay Area for almost four years now and I met folks from my current organization six years ago at a FoodCorps training in Sausalito, right before I left California for a year of AmeriCorps service in Connecticut at Common Ground High School. Maintaining relationships, especially in a niche field like this, is quite important and valuable for mobility. Remembering stories, people’s names, and following up all create memories that sometimes lead to unexpected opportunities.
How did your previous work or life experience prepare you for a good food job?
I’ve had good food jobs for the past seven years, but it all started after I moved home to Los Angeles from Brooklyn and started working in the Monrovia School School District as a substitute for a robust nutrition education program. I graduated into the recession and it was REALLY hard to find a job at the time, but this part time position set a tone for my life’s work. I didn’t get into FoodCorps my first time applying, but I reapplied after my job with MUSD and got my first choice state and service site. I used to get good grades in elementary school, but I always got in trouble for being a chatterbox. I think my love of people, real relationships, and stories has helped me navigate and take advantage of a growing field. As Maya Angelou said “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
What was the greatest obstacle you had to overcome in pursuing your Good Food Job dream?
My greatest obstacle has been surviving financially through the recession, meager AmeriCorps stipends, and the immense cost of living here in the Bay Area. It is hard to stay true to the work, when you struggle financially to survive. I’ve definitely made it over a hump, but it took many years to get here, and it’s still hard sometimes. I’ve always worked for other people, but this year I’ll be stepping into my own work that will hopefully provide additional financial and intellectual fulfillment. I’m starting to plan a side hustle, so look out for a new venture from Kala Cuerington – hopefully I can provide a gastrognome update when the time comes. I’d love to connect with small business owners that have expertise in food and kids/youth on the West coast as I hone my idea – if that’s you or someone you know, please reach out!
Name one positive thing that a former employer taught you that you continue to appreciate?
Before Education Outside I spent time working at The Edible Schoolyard Berkeley. This magical place stems from the work of Alice Waters of the famous Chez Panisse. Over ten years ago, Alice set a tone that is, amongst other things, committed to excellence, creativity, beauty, and hospitality. As someone who has spent most of my career in nonprofits, these concepts were new to me as organizational priorities, but they will stay with me forever. Arranging dates and a piece of dark chocolate on a plate for a meeting, cutting some flowers for the conference table, or laying out a colorful oilcloth for an event are all acceptable and accessible practices for everyone – they make people feel loved and cared for. This is something that is especially powerful with kids and adults whom you’re trying to pull into your vision and work.
What can you identify as the greatest opportunities in food right now?
First off, right now local must become a focal point. We’re entering an ominous new time in this country. I feel similarly to many others in wondering how to move forward and create REAL change. The more I sit with it all, the more clear it becomes: the opportunities lie in our historic and immigrant communities. I say this because I live in Oakland, which is a city that is experiencing painful and rapid gentrification but also has a deep history of activism. I’m inspired by the organizing that is happening to protect, support, and defend each other given our new reality. Food sovereignty work gets to the heart of this, and must be bolstered across the country at the local level.
Secondly, in order to do this in a way that supports everyone, we also need to create pathways and opportunities that help to diversify this movement, it can’t continue to be dominated by “foodies” and “hippies”- simply put, we need more people of color in decision-making roles in this movement.
If you could be compensated for your work with something other than money, what would it be?
If I could be compensated with land, food, shelter, and community that would allow all my primary needs to be fulfilled, which would free me to spend more time deepening my work, and vision for change in this world. If we’re being less practical, I wouldn’t mind being paid in: sparkling rosé, cheese danishes, Bermudian codfish and potatoes, empanadas, ripe Ataulfo mangos and Arctic Star nectarines.