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Katelyn Star Mann
Gap Year
April 21, 2015

Katelyn is an example of what you can do when you put your mind (and passions) to work, before you even show up to your first day as a college freshman. The landscape of higher education and employment has shifted tremendously in the past decade, and that means that every opportunity you can take advantage of before choosing to attend college is one that will help advance your career in immeasurable ways.

When did you know that you wanted to work in food?

I discovered I wanted to work in food through the process of healing from my hatred of food. I developed the eating disorder Anorexia, along with excessive exercising and anxiety, in eighth grade. Luckily my fight was discovered early on, but the healing process lasted a long time as an integral factor in my life. I had an unhealthy obsession with 'healthy' eating and calorie counting, and a very sensitive relationship to food.

Even before middle school, I knew I wanted to 'save the world' in any way I could. My third grade teacher prophesized to my mother, "She will either be the next Clara Barton, or a dictator of a small country," at a parent/teacher conference. Environmental Sciences became my focus in high school.

My sophomore year of high school I discovered an outlet to turn my harmful obsession with food into a productive and healing obsession, alongside my passion for environmental health. When I moved to North Carolina I met Lydia Atkins, an amazing mentor and former FoodCorps service member, at a documentary screening, who connected me to the sustainable agriculture scene (farmers, urban gardeners, herbalists, chefs, etc.) and taught me the power of sharing a meal. (She also helped me chronicle my first wine tasting, at the North Carolina Wild Foods Weekend, which probably cemented our everlasting friendship.) That summer after sophomore year I traveled to the Appalachian Mountains to work on two organic farms. Those three months changed my life. With sustainable agriculture, I found a way to make Environmental Sciences 'real-life', and hands on. I respected and valued the food I ate because I grew it, and was sharing it with people I loved. I learned to see food as nourishment, not just a source of calories. After that, I knew I wanted to help others heal the earth and themselves with food.

How did you get your current good food job?

I am in Gap Year between high school and starting at Green Mountain College in the Fall. Last year, while applying for colleges and scholarships, I was also planning for this year, working to try out diverse 'jobs' in the Sustainable Agriculture field. My hope was to find positions that fit into two parts:
Part A - Different language and culture, rural fieldwork, production focused, community development
Part B - Urban setting, education focused, non profit. I am amazed at how much planning I did, when so much of this year ended up being unplanned. The spur-of-the-moment decisions made it all the better.

After searching for programs in Latin America and coming up empty, I came across an email from CUESA Ferry Plaza farmers market that highlighted the MESA (Multinational Exchange for Sustainable Agriculture Program), and their Summer program in Global Agroecology and Local Food Systems. I attended the MESA program in Peru, then I spent the fall working with an organic dairy cooperative in Peru (Vacas Felices) and a biological research station (La Hesperia) in Ecuador.

My discovery of The Washington Youth Garden (WYG) started with the location - I knew I wanted to intern in D.C., because of the convergence of local, national, and international organizations in our capital. I started Googling to find all organizations in the area involved in sustainable agriculture, and emailing them to inquire about internship availabilities. WYG caught my eye because of their unique educational programs, and I feel very lucky to be working with their amazing team now.

I 'cold-called' my director, Charla Wanta, via email to ask if they had any need or interest in an unpaid intern during my time-frame, and offered to follow up with a cover letter and resume. I think Charla was wary at first, but over a phone interview I told her about my unique position and described my passions. It turned out that they had extra room for winter interns.

How did your previous work or life experience prepared you for a good food job?

Moving around often (16 times) in my childhood taught me to be adaptable and proactive. With a supportive family, picking up my life and relocating it every time I was close to feeling comfortable fostered a certain kind of independence and perseverance. When a new community becomes my home, I quickly try to make new friends and get involved, be it via pottery classes, a job selling at a farmer's market, or volunteering at a bicycle cooperative. I developed a curiosity for new places and ideas, along with a passion for becoming a meaningful member of whatever new community I found myself a part of. The Good Food Movement is incredibly diverse and spread across the nation, and my adaptability means I don't have to limit myself to a particular location.

My first experience working on a farm in high school prepared me for my role in the demo garden at WYG. I know how to use the tools, identify weeds to pull, build a compost pile, and work in the rain thanks to Trout Lily Farm And Mountain Harvest Organics. Another high school internship, with Kathy Byron of GoodFood Sandhills, Foodcorps Service member Lydia Atkins, and educator Shawna Fink, helped prepare me for playing with kids in an educational garden setting.

What was the greatest obstacle you had to overcome in pursuing your good food job dream?

For all the opportunities this past year, I had to be a little pushy and more detail-oriented to get involved because of my young age (17-18).

Age has been the greatest obstacle in pursuing Good Food opportunities. I found that in DC, most organizations and businesses will not accept interns or apprentices unless they are in college or have completed their degree. I had to persuade people to consider me by being pretty assertive - following up emails with phone calls and thank you notes. I think youth in our society are not given enough responsibility in important roles.

Name one positive thing that a former employee taught you that you continue to appreciate?

I am lucky to have many deeply influential 'elders' from past positions, who have taught me essential life skills.

While working on Trout Lily Farm, owner David Kendall taught me the importance of savoring long meals to engage in conversation and build relationships. His mindfulness made reflection and learning integral into every conversation.

As an intern at GoodFood Sandhills my senior year, Kathy Byron taught me the value of giving young people responsibility in important projects. She helped me discover the power I had armed with a passion, even as a 15 year old.

What can you identify as the greatest opportunities in food right now?

The greatest opportunities that exist now involve combining many different 'jobs' in food, finding and creating opportunities where people in diverse positions can collaborate and connect (the most basic example that is already flourishing: farmers and chefs coming together for farm to table restaurants). This will not translate into a career in the traditional sense; it will involve people who have diverse job 'portfolios', working on a few projects at once and inventing meaningful ways to connect them. We all know food is a great tool for connection. In my future, I hope to connect food and farming to healing from mental disorders, by starting a farm that serves as an Eating Disorder recovery center. (PS: I'm looking for collaborators who have an interest in therapy/psychology, so I can take on the farming and art side! Email the lovely ladies at and they'll put us in touch.)

If you could be compensated for your work with something other than money, what would it be?

My current internship is unpaid. Instead of money, I receive constant inspiration and good humor from my coworkers, as well as some free veggies and edible weeds from the garden. I would love to be compensated in travel opportunities - any chance to explore new places and meet incredible people.

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