By Grayson Shelor, Education Coordinator, AMI Farm at Augusta Health
AMI Fellow 2017-2018
“Ma’am, MA’AM!” The boy is jumping up and down, carrot greens clutched tight in his hand. The words burst out of him all in a rush, “These-veggies-are-delicious!”
As tempted as I may be to laugh at his wild excitement and delighted shock--why are they always surprised?-- I’m hardly one to judge. I am too near myself to the day I first discovered brussel sprouts growing like jingle bells on their stem, that cauliflower comes in colors other than ghostly white, and that carrots one pulls from the earth with muddy fingers are infinitely sweeter.
I came to Allegheny Mountain Institute in 2017 from traditional pantry-based hunger relief work, with the intent of bridging the gap between enough food--a sufficiency of calories to be found in shelf-stable processed products like canned beef ravioli--and nourishing food. Fresh, local, sustainably grown vegetables have so much power in them, not only to fill the belly, but to protect against health threats like diabetes, obesity and all its complications, and certain types of cancer. Equitable access to fresh food is not only a moral imperative, but a key driver of community health and resiliency.
As an AMI Farm and Food Fellow, I was nourished by immersion into the practice, the science, and the metaphor of growing food. I learned for the first time of the intricate network of life in our soil, and its influence on the nutrient density of fruits and vegetables; essential nutrients only present in healthy soil embedded amidst the scaffolding of complex carbohydrates. Together with my cohort of farm and food-system investigators, the Fellowship invited me to witness the patterns of human and ecological interaction, and then to go forth and better them.
In the camp garden where my new friend has just given his glowing review of fresh veggies, we start small and we work backwards. “There are two plants in the garden that work together to make pickles. Can we find them?” The children, I have found, love pickles. From the familiar jar, we trace the components back to the plants where they grow. At the prescription produce program, Food Farmacy, a collaboration that pairs Augusta Health’s clinicians and AMI-grown produce to help patients manage diabetes, a similar linking of vegetables to health takes place.
“The Vitamin E in fruits and vegetables is both a vitamin, and an antioxidant,” the dietitian announces. “Antioxidants fight the free radicals that damage and age our bodies’ cells”.
“I need extra of that!” our participants joke. Then they load up with veggies from the farm stand.
As human beings moving through our world, each of us is confronted with challenges both personal and communal. Sometimes the pressure to do right, and to relieve suffering for our neighbors, makes us feel puny and ineffectual beneath the weight of it. The temptation to believe in a magic bullet, a superfood, a golden pill, is intense. But on the Allegheny Farm, we tend to use the analogy of the toolbox instead. A toolbox is only as good as the tools inside, and using those tools to fix broken systems will always require hard work, creativity, and persistence.
My toolbox was filled at AMI. Filled with knowledge from expert instructors, dirty hands-on days of real experience growing food, and with the practice of studying communities from within. Filled with the firm belief that cultivating healthy communities takes flexibility and grit. Today, I honor that by the way I characterize vegetables in community education: not as a cure-all, but as the vessels for vitamins and minerals, which cumulatively build up a defense from the risks our bodies encounter. We can’t remove risk all at once, or entirely, but we can weight down the healthy side of the balance scale with protective factors, including a healthy, balanced diet, an active lifestyle, and confidence in our own power to bring about change.
I offer my story because I am one of many on the AMI team working toward our vision of a thriving network of communities who value the connection between food and health. The Farm and Food Fellowship helped me develop the tools and strategies I needed to pursue this passion, and there are 15 Fellows coming up behind me, finding their own places to put down roots and get to work fixing food with partner organizations throughout Highland and Augusta Counties. AMI is proud of our commitment to a fully-sponsored Fellowship, ensuring that socioeconomic barriers do not prevent our brightest minds from focusing on cultivating vital futures for our communities. None of us does this work in isolation. We count on the support of our communities, in hugs, in weed-pulling and cherry tomato harvests, and class attendance, as well as in financial contributions. Will you join us in our journey?
This holiday season, AMI seeks your help to keep the Farm and Food Fellowship accessible to all, with fully sponsored tuition for accepted Fellows. Click HERE to donate to AMI today!