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One Tomato at a Time

By Maya Eppelbaum, Phase II Fellow

Why did you come to the Allegheny Mountain Institute?

This is a question every Fellow has been asked time and time again. And each of our answers are different—Pat did it for the love of farming, Grayson for food education, and Elora for her Help Everyone Center. And I did it for the love of nature.

Digging deeper into these answers, I find that there is one root to all of our stories—and that is hope. Hope for a better food system. Hope that everyone can equally access and enjoy fresh, good produce. Hope that we can use nature, food, and relationships to nourish and heal. Each one of us truly believes that we can reconcile the fast-paced carbon powered modern era with the slowness of sustainably harvested foods, goods, and services. At AMI, we do not romanticize the past, but rather, we take the wisdom of our ancestors to the hustle and bustle of our communities to strive for the best of both worlds.

So, the big question for me is: am I still as hopeful for our food system as I was when I embarked on the AMI journey 18 months ago? As I ponder this question, I think about an AMI dinner held in October. During that dinner, I gave a speech with a line, “AMI is changing the world, one tomato at a time.”

After giving that speech, a man approached me and asked “How will change happen if we do it so slowly? The Food Farmacy program you host is great, but it is only 20 families and only 16 weeks long. How can your 25,000 pounds of food grown compare to the 300 million pounds of food wasted every single day?

I think there are two ways to compare our 25,000 pounds of organic produce to the big picture.

First, I always like to employ the seed analogy. We started with one seed, one idea: a Fellowship program. With the nourishment of the AMI staff, the seed has grown into a wonderful plant, that then produced thousands of new seeds, that birds and animals spread throughout the world. With the hope, charisma, and talent of the Fellows, our message is spreading far and wide. Just look at the AMI Farm at Augusta Health’s volunteer squad, Virginia School for the Deaf and Blind’s Farm to School grant, the growth and success of Project GROWS, and Staunton City School’s Charlie Cart program.

Except the seed analogy does not completely cover it. Take a comment from the Farm to Table conference last week: “If everyone ate the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables, our grocery stores would be cleaned out of produce and we’d still need more.” That hit me. It hit me because it shows the dire need for a multifaceted approach to combat our food issues. Humans have wiped out millions of plant species with our seed stomping, and if we are not strategic, AMI can be next.

That is why I agree - we need more change, faster. We need better food policy, a shift in our insurance strategies to emphasize wellness, and more forward thinking places like AMI and our partner organizations. At Augusta Health, I have been impressed with how well our missions of creating healthy communities align. I believe health insurance, pharmaceutical companies, and other, larger hospitals also have missions that align with ours. We need to work together, too.

That begs the next, even more challenging question: what comes next for Fellows? This is another question that AMI Fellows get asked all the time. I usually answer: some are teachers, others small food business owners, some lawyers, and many continue to farm. I’m not sure if any of these answers alone will work for me. The only answer I have is that I don’t know. I know what needs to change but I don’t know how I am meant to change it. As the months go by, I am starting to be ok with that unknown.

I am ok with it because what I do know, more than anything, is that I am more hopeful for a sustainable food system than I have ever been before. I know the wellness world is huge and there are opportunities for farmers, strategists, educators, and even health insurance reps to build healthier communities. I have hope for AMI’s mission, and I know that wherever I go next, I will continue to support and bring about healthier, sustainable, thriving communities.

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