It's easy to get caught up in Kassandra's energy as she relates what feels like a whirlwind of experiences that led her, over the past handful of years, to the role she is in now at Plant Chicago. But what we don't want you to miss is the fact that, before she was offered her full-time job at a place she loved interning with, she took on another far-away opportunity. Sometimes stepping away and putting distance between yourself and the thing you want most is just the right recipe for happiness.
When did you know that you wanted to work in food?
Growing up in Minnesota, you are surrounded by food. Agriculture and casseroles are your life.
My relationship with food changed drastically starting with my high school experience. I was lucky enough to go to a baller school called the School of Environmental Studies (SES), based at the Minnesota Zoo. At SES all of our lessons were planned around the planet and we had an outdoor classroom, with classes such as Winter Survival and Environmental Ethics. I was exposed to the 'new wave' of socially, ethically and equitably produced food early on.
When I entered college at the University of Minnesota, I took that interest with me. I majored in Global Studies, with an emphasis on Environmental Studies and Sustainability Studies. I became increasingly interested in food, specifically food that supports our local economy along the entire line of food production. I joined a group at the U of M called Migrant Farmworkers Awareness Alliance. There, I learned about the intense reality of our food system, and the poorly treated migrant laborers that make our food happen in the United States. I started working in policy change. I did my last semester abroad in Ecuador, where I had the chance to work at a permaculture farm in the cloud forest. I worked alongside villagers, ecologists and farmers, learning about sustainable farming and building practices. We explored the dangerous sides of monoculture, through talking with palmito farmers who had lost fingers and limbs, along with the environmental impact upon the soil and water.
After that experience, my sister and heroine, Heather and I traveled through Colombia, working on different farms and sleeping in a tent along the ocean. Upon returning to the states, I continued my informal education in Tucson, AZ where I worked at a bilingual elementary school teaching an after-school farming program. I knew I wanted to continue on this path - food had become more than a passion, an increasingly large part of my life.
How did you get your current good food job?
I moved to Chicago, IL three years ago. I had absolutely no plan. I was hustling working three jobs as a bike messenger, aquaponic farmer and self-esteem instructor. I decided to Google 'urban farms' in Chicago. I stumbled upon The Plant (where I work now) a 94,000 former meat-packing plant in the Back of the Yards neighborhood, which has now been repurposed as a community of food producing businesses all focused on reusing waste. I went on a tour in the middle of December and fell in love. There were tons of plants and mushrooms growing in the basement. From the energy system which will run off of food waste, to the creative minds I met that fatal day, I was hooked. And inspired.
I ended up applying for an internship under the Education program through the non-profit that runs out of the building, Plant Chicago. I got the internship and started creating new k-12 workshops and giving tours. Although I was only working 8 hours per week with Plant Chicago, I loved my experience. I was then offered an opportunity to teach environmental stewardship abroad in the dry and rain forests of Costa Rica with my sister for the summer. I jumped at the chance. Long story short, when I was in Costa Rica, I was offered a full-time position at Plant Chicago as Education and Outreach Manager when I returned to the states. It couldn't have worked out better.
How did your previous work or life experience prepare you for a good food job?
I feel like all of the previous experiences - working at the farms in Ecuador, Colombia, Arizona and Chicago - have taught me something incredible. Through each experience, I have learned something new about our food system and the people who produce our food. I have been able to apply so much of those experiences to my work with Plant Chicago.
What was the greatest obstacle you had to overcome in pursuing your Good Food Job dream?
In order to work in the nonprofit sector, you have to be prepared to face many challenges. From expanding your role as educator to web developer, newsletter writer, email answering machine, curriculum creator, babysitter and volunteer coordinator, often times nonprofit workers get stretched really thin. I have definitely had moments of wanting to call it quits. For me, the most rewarding thing about my job is working with the community here in Back of the Yards on the south side of Chicago. We offer free educational programming such as tours and workshops to community members. This year alone, we've provided education programs free of charge to nearly 900 students from Back of the Yards. Plant Chicago also runs a Farmers Market, which includes food producing tenants of The Plant, as well as other local producers. In 2016, we've gone from less than 5% attendance from Back of the Yards residents, to over 40%. We also accept the IL Link card (food stamps) and double the dollar value up to $25. It was been an incredible inspiration to see these changes happen with Plant Chicago,
Name one positive thing that a former employer taught you that you continue to appreciate?
Our Farmers Market Manager, Liz Lyon is a total angel-woman. She supports the entire staff in times of need. She's incredibly emotionally mature and in touch with others feelings at any given moment. She's extremely cool under pressure, and can handle several people bombarding her with questions at once (such as Farmer Market vendors and volunteers). She has taught me to be patient and take everything in stride, especially when it comes to planning events, such as our Farmers Markets, annual community BBQ and other events.
What can you identify as the greatest opportunities in food right now?
Urban farming! Farming in vacant lots, in basements and on rooftops. I feel like we're in the middle of a farming revolution, let's keep the momentum and make sure locally grown food is not just a passing fad. Let's make urban farming a realistic job for people living in cities!
If you could be compensated for your work with something other than money, what would it be?
Train and plane tickets to exciting backpacking and biking adventures. Please, thank you! Also, unlimited (paid) time off.