When did you know that you wanted to work in food?
I grew up in an agricultural part of Minnesota. My mom started shopping at the natural foods coop near our house in the early 1980's. When my sister and I were little, the coop was our "date spot" with mom. I have very fond memories of our neighborhood coop; I still remember the way it smelled.
When it was time for me to find my first job, working at the coop seemed like a no-brainer. For one, it was my second home. In addition, it was the only business near my hometown that I could think of that employed people that dressed "alternatively" (win-win for me). When I moved to Minneapolis to begin my art degree at the U of M, I found quick employment with the coops in the Twin Cities. I started at North Country Cooperative Grocery, moved on to Seward Community Coop, and ended up at Mississippi Market for many years. Working for natural foods coops gave me a working knowledge on alternative business models, issues in the food system, and a working knowledge on human nutrition.
One day, while stocking produce at Mississippi Market, I was approached by a customer with a question (that I cannot remember) about one of the products we sold at the store. Whatever I told them must have been so convincing that their response to me was, "Have you ever thought about teaching nutrition? You'd make a great teacher." After they left I thought, "Yeah, I would. I think I'd like that." So I finished my art degree, took two years of science requirements, and moved to Seattle, WA to pursue my Bachelor of Science in Nutrition from Bastyr University.
How did you get your current good food job?
I picked up the job at Lonesome Whistle at the Lane County Farmer's Market. I had just returned from an inspirational week at Quillisascut Farm in Rice, WA and I was extra-extra jazzed about crop biodiversity and seed saving. I noticed a sign for Dakota Black Popcorn and said to my partner, "they're doing it! They're growing traditional grains!" I walked in to check out their other products and noticed a sign that they were hiring. I started working with Lonesome Whistle Farm shortly thereafter.
I picked up the job with the Corvallis Environmental Center at the Corvallis Farmer's Market (shout out to farmer's markets). Again, I was shopping for food and approached the booth for the Corvallis Environmental Center (I had seen signs for the nonprofit around town but wasn't sure what they did). The women at the booth were recruiting for board members. I shared with them my experience with collectives and serving on boards for different nonprofits in the past. They suggested that I apply, and also shared the opportunity to work as a Farm to School Intern with the CEC. I decided to start as a Farm to School Intern, and it has been a great experience.
I picked up the job with the Healthy Youth Program through stalking the Linus Pauling Website during my studies at Bastyr University. The Linus Pauling Institute has some wonderful online resources describing the research around dietary micronutrients. The LPI also conducts research around dietary micronutrients (specifically those that act as antioxidants in the body) and cancer, which is something I am very interested in. I knew some other dietitians that were going to be attending the LPI's annual Diet and Optimum Health Conference, so I decided to attend and see which areas of the LPI I'd like to get connected with (I was very new to Corvallis at that time). At the conference I met the two directors for the Healthy Youth Program, and started working as a nutrition educator with them shortly thereafter.
How did your previous work or life experience prepare you for a good food job?
My experience with natural foods coops laid a significant foundation for my belief systems around food, as well as set the bar high when it comes to employment standards for me. Working for the coop taught me that it is possible to "make a living" doing something I believe in. It also taught me that I'll probably never be rich, but I got over that years ago. Attending Bastyr University taught me that there are a LOT of smart, capable people out there that are interested in some of the same things I am. At first it felt overwhelming being immersed in an environment where there were so many intelligent and creative people that wanted the same things I did, but I learned that my experiences are mine and I bring different and unique things to the table.
What was the greatest obstacle you had to overcome in pursuing your Good Food Job dream?
I thought about calling it quits a lot at Bastyr! Biochemistry kicked my butt for an entire solid year. It was awful then, and now I love it (what's up with that?). The environment at Bastyr felt very competitive for me, and at times I thought I couldn't take it. During those times, I had to remember how capable I used to feel working for the coop, and how much I believed in working towards a just food system. I had to remember that no one can be good at everything, and I had to remember to learn with curiosity instead of seeking perfection. My experience with Bastyr also taught me how to hear "no", and carry on anyway. I am learning that just because some of my ideas are not working out right now, it does not mean that they will never work out. I am learning every day how to be flexible!
Name one positive thing that a former employer taught you that you continue to appreciate?
I really appreciate when employers value my life experiences and work with me to incorporate them into the business. Obviously it is important for a business to maintain certain quality standards for their work, but I think that creativity and flexibility make a company strong. After all, change is inevitable. While working as a produce stocker at the coop, my former boss recognized my growing interest in human nutrition and background in art and had me write and format various educational nutrition handouts for our department. My current bosses at Lonesome Whistle recognized my background in food service and nutrition and have me working on developing, formatting and printing recipes for our weekly markets and our website. Supervisors that acknowledge individual strengths of their employees and creatively work them to meet the goals of the overall business make a company stronger. Qualities like these in a supervisor often lead to better workplace morale as well as higher employee satisfaction.
What can you identify as the greatest opportunities in food right now?
I have really been enjoying learning from some of the farmers and farm programs here in the Willamette Valley in Oregon. At Lonesome Whistle, we are some of the few people around the country cultivating and processing the grains that we do. It has been very cool to meet many of the chefs and restaurants in Portland that seek out these niche grain varieties and buy our products. I love what the folks at RAFT (Renewing America's Food Traditions) Alliance are doing, and I see a growing interest in many of these heirloom and heritage varieties. We are seeing (especially in the restaurant industry) that millennials tend towards experiences rather than material goods. The famous Portlandia "Chicken" episode illustrates this cultural shift perfectly. "Fine dining" is taking on new meaning, as more young people are interested in food sourcing rather than food technique. I think that the invention of Instagram and food blogging has made the specialty food word quite a bit more glamorous, which could go either way. The downside to this is that it may give the impression that good food is more expensive, and therefore unattainable. The upside to this is that it makes simple, good food more enticing to the part of the population that has expendable income to spend on their specialty smoothie powders.
If you could be compensated for your work with something other than money, what would it be?
I love the community that working in the natural foods world has brought to me. People generally get into good food work because of a common ethical drive, so it usually makes it easy to get along with your coworkers! This is super cheese ball, but the satisfaction of doing meaningful work is pretty important to me. I'm already not paid monetarily for a few of my positions, and the opportunity to share good food with a younger generation is invaluable to me.