Jul 22 2014

Stay Tuned

Michael Pollan. Marion Nestle. Will Allen. Alice Waters. Dan Barber.

These men and women may not have reached tabloid-cover celebrity status, but they’re household names to anyone interested in sustainable food, constantly advocating for a more resilient food system. Over the next several decades, these advocates will continue to influence food policy and make known the inequities, inefficiencies, and blatant corruption inherent to our current food system. Despite their varied backgrounds, locales, and methods, they share a mutual desire for a more equitable, transparent, and engaged food culture. They also have something else in common: they’re all over the age of 40.

Today, across the country and world, the next generation of Will Allens and Marion Nestles are equally eager to influence and participate, yet unwilling to take a well-trodden path to a traditional career. This oft-maligned millennial generation is poised on the edge of relevancy, and, with regards to the food movement specifically, I’m encouraged by one intelligent, motivated, and approachable 22 year old I recently met.

Several months ago, the potential future of our food movement – or at least one representative – sat in front of me at Little T American Baker, bubbling over with excitement about SNAP benefits at farmers’ markets as she sipped a black iced tea. Erika Takeo had just come from planting tomato starts in the backyard of her parents’ Portland home, and very much looked the part of a 22 year old. Hair in a ponytail. Tote bag over her shoulder. An excited tone of voice as she spoke to me and the bakery’s employees. She moved self-assuredly even though she’d never met me before and seemed eager to talk about herself for as long as I would let her.

Gothamist recently published a long list of “A Year’s Worth of Millennial” articles, highlighting articles written across the internet about this generation on the brink. The collective negative slant on this generation read fairly predictably and included comments about millennials perpetually on their smartphones, millennials complaining, millennials without a strong work ethic. “They tend to be very self-absorbed; they value fun in their personal and their work life,” shared Robert Boggs, an administrator at Corinthian Colleges in Southern California. Even fellow millennials took part in these generational generalizations. Camille Perry, 26 and living in Portland, Oregon, told the New York Times that “we are a generation that spent a lot of time in front of the television or playing video games...There’s just a prevalent laziness.”

But what some see as a rejection of the “serious” or “mature” parts of life may simply be side effects hiding the deeper search for meaning on which many millennials embark. Newly graduated 21 year olds are often uncommitted and untethered, allotting themselves the flexibility and time to find a job that resonates with them. I read articles with quotes like “when [millennials are] lucky enough to get a job they’re basically told, ‘Be quiet, you don’t really know anything ’” This annoyance with being unacknowledged highlights millennials’ decidedly different approaches to employment and careers from previous generations’. Instead of feeling “lucky” to get a job, any job, some members of the millennial generation crave meaningful work, not just a paycheck. And many members of this younger generation want nothing to do with climbing their way up a job hierarchy (or much less, having a job with a hierarchy).

After all, this generation was raised with accessible highspeed internet and immediate gratification in research and social communication, all while connected to a world much larger than their home town. With the right mentors, parents, and personalities, their oft-lambasted view of themselves as unique and on the brink of a life full of unlimited possibilities has the ability to positively disrupt our work culture.

Erika certainly shares traits with her generation – she was open to chatting and sharing, optimism pervading nearly everything she talked about. But Erika talked about herself because I had asked her to, not because she was self-absorbed. And she wasn’t speaking randomly or off the cuff; no sentences were sprinkled with “like” and “you know” while she simultaneously checked her cell phone. (In fact, she has an ancient looking cell phone that can’t receive text messages.) Instead, Erika spent over an hour talking about her interests in sustainable agriculture, farming, food policy, and how to apply agriculture to a greater social cause.

When you read articles online about millennials’ malaise, it’s too easy to form a skewed view of this next generation. I’m as guilty as anyone: I’m especially annoyed by how it’s second nature for this generation who grew up with phones and Facebook to multitask conversations while navigating buried menus of an iPhone with a few knowing swipes.

But a broad brush for a movement or a generation is never appropriate. In direct contrast to the driftless and unmotivated or social media obsessed selfie takers, there are young people I’ve never heard about, because instead of worrying about their latest instagram photo or the perfectly witty comment on their timeline, they’re cultivating knowledge, thinking about the future, and using their 20s as a decade to learn and improve. There are scores of innovative minds across the country, people I’ll never meet who are thinking about food in creative ways (and I’m not talking about Instacart, Graze, or Soylent), a decade away from being the name you see on the Opinion page instead of Mark Bittman, or the oft-quoted food policy expert standing in for Marion Nestle.

Erika and I each attended The College of Wooster, a small liberal arts college in Ohio, an hour outside of Cleveland and surrounded by Amish families, cornfields, and residents moving at a slightly less frenetic pace. Last year, as I thumbed through the alumni magazine, wondering if I recognized anybody in the wedding photos that dot the back pages, I also quickly scanned to see if any Independent Study projects caught my attention. At Wooster, every senior is required to create, research, and submit a thesis in their chosen discipline. This project is due in March of senior year and celebrated by the receipt of a tootsie roll, a drunken march around campus, and a night of parties. I.S. projects are broad in scope and execution, influenced by the creativity of the student and their major. This year’s Independent Study magazine featured projects on simulating avalanches with gum-balls, the effect of human noise on frogs, and linking sounds with subconscious racial bias.

Last year I paused my page-flipping when I saw a photo of a smiling girl holding a giant bunch of freshly harvested garlic. The article touched briefly on how the I.S. project of the photo’s subject (a student named Erika Takeo) explored urban agriculture in Cleveland. For her thesis, she interviewed numerous kinds of urban agriculture ventures in inner city Cleveland, from market farms and community gardens to orchards and vineyards, and then drew conclusions using Wangari Maathai's theoretical framework on sustainable development. The end of the article mentioned that Erika was interning on a farm in Southern Oregon. I clipped the article out (and then received a second copy when my mother also mailed me the same clipping), and filed it away as a potential story to pursue. I was curious about her experiences at Wooster, her time at Dancing Bear Farm, and if she saw a future for herself in sustainable food. By the time I contacted her, Erika was long finished with her farming internship and had moved back to Portland. Interested in her future plans and if her own theoretical framework and approach to agriculture had changed after months on a rural organic farm, I suggested meeting at Little T.

Over our iced teas, Erika recapped her college revelations. Before The College of Wooster, she “barely knew anything about growing food or cooking food.” But only a year after graduating, Erika not only knows how to grow, cook, and market food, she’s able to identify and explain larger themes in agriculture and local food, expounding on topics like community engagement and societal constraints. Yet Wooster isn’t a sustainable agriculture school in the model of Vermont’s Sterling College. When I went to Wooster eight years before Erika, I don’t remember even a hint of a conversation surrounding the topic of sustainable agriculture. Wooster didn’t grow and maintain a garden, the dining hall didn’t dedicate a portion of their food to locally sourced accounts, I didn’t compost my leftovers, and students had no connection with Ohio farmers. Had Wooster really changed that drastically in eight years?

Yes and no. Wooster isn’t a hub for food studies, but it is a place for open conversation and innovative approaches, exemplified by the school-wide focus on Independent Study. When Erika started at Wooster (attracted to the school for its friendly feel and because she could play the bagpipes there), she was contemplating a science degree, but hadn’t teased apart what that looked like. Erika told me that in high school she’d read the book No Impact Man and had also taken a social justice course. Those two experiences remained with her as she took freshman year classes at Wooster and found her place on the small, connected campus. After joining a social justice group, she applied for an urban gardening internship, seemingly on a whim. Erika laughed when trying to remember why she applied: “I didn’t know what I was doing, but somehow got the internship!” The internship was with Cleveland Botanical Garden’s Green Corps program. As Erika explains it, “Green Corps is a work-land program for high school age youth where they can get paid to learn how to garden and sell at market.” Green Corps employs 70-75 students each year, who work on one of the six inner city farm sites. Erika calls her experience a “crash course in sustainable farming” that immediately hooked her.

Drawn in by the physicality of farming and the broader intellectual and community applications, Erika self-designed a major called Global Sustainability Studies, a major that led to the Independent Study that was featured in the Wooster alumni magazine. Even as a college age student, new to agriculture, her thesis aptly identified and explored one of the larger problems in the current local food movement: ownership. She explained how her curiosity of ownership, efficacy, and community engagement in food was piqued while interning at Green Corps:

Most of the youth were African American [and] had grown up in Cleveland in low income backgrounds. The staff, also Cleveland natives, but maybe different parts of Cleveland, maybe the suburbs, were white. Totally well-intentioned. The farms we worked in were neighborhoods that were very low-income surrounded by public housing. I’m just curious about the dynamics. If that was serving the community or not, and how best to go about those kind of programs. That was [an interest] that developed throughout my time at Wooster.

After Wooster, Erika immediately transitioned to rural farming, spending a half year stint working Dancing Bear through the Rogue Farm Corps program, seeking more hands-on farming experience and knowledge of what rural farming was really like. Once the internship was completed late last Fall, Erika moved back in with her Portland-based parents, sifting through her thoughts on farming, non-profits, and accessibility. Her internship was challenging, tiring, and enlightening, and at its conclusion she realized that she wanted a career that applied the tangible day-to-day of agriculture to a broader social dynamic. On her blog at the time, she wrote, “Now that I’m done with my farm internship, I see myself fitting into the food system through social justice work.” As she told me, “If you’re a full time farmer trying to make a living, you can’t concentrate on all those other things. It doesn’t make sense – it’s so hard to make a living just straight up farming. Not that I don’t think farmers can’t be activists in other ways.”

In the din of the passionate discussion surrounding farmers and farmers’ markets, its easy to neglect the less noticeable members of the same movement: the market organizers, the nonprofits related to food, people who care about SNAP benefits. While our food system will always need young (or old!), eager, engaged farmers who can secure land and capital, connect with a marketplace, and grow seriously delicious food, it simultaneously needs engaged millennials like Erika to apply their skills and knowledge to food policy and community engagement.

The agricultural sector seems like an ideal place for a questioning millennial to carve a niche. It’s difficult to find an exact number, but based on several articles, as well as my own interactions and observations, college educated young adults are more frequently choosing to direct their education, passion, and creativity into the agricultural sphere. Not only are many addicted to the feeling of accomplishment after 15 hour work days, they see farming as a way to influence change in a small community and as an outlet to apply their recently acquired microbiology, sociology, biology, or philosophy degree. Forrest Pritchard of Virginia’s Smith Meadows agrees, writing that “it was the intellectual training I received in college, the rigorous daily challenge of forcing my brain to make logical, thoughtful choices, that I now find invaluable.... After four years, I could simultaneously process new information, budget my time, and live a fun, rewarding life. In short, college trained me to become competent at daily, non-stop problem solving. I can’t overstate how useful this is for daily farm life.”

In between my meetings with Erika, the New York Times published a fascinating photo essay and article on the trend of millennials living at home. The young adults in the piece range in age from 22 to 30. Back home because of crushing student loan debt, unsure job prospects, or attempts at saving money, all of these millennials admit that living at home feels strange, caught between childhood and adulthood. Like the subjects of the New York Times article, Erika found herself living in her childhood room last winter, unoccupied and with hazy ideas of her next steps after years of forward momentum – college, thesis, farming. As she competed with other job seekers for jobs at food organizations like Friends of Family Farmers and the Oregon Food Bank, her lack of experience and qualifications made the winter months a “struggle”. But she managed to focus her jittery instability by attending food conferences, taking the GRE, applying to graduate school, tending to her family’s chickens (procured with Erika’s encouragement), and expanding their garden. After months of job applications and a bit of uncertainty, she found two seasonal, agriculture-based, jobs late this past spring.

Her two seasonal positions are drastically different roles, but speak to the duality of Erika’s interests. At the Mercy Corps Refuge Gardens, Erika oversees two garden plots, assisting Karen families from Burma and Nepali families from Bhutan in harvest, weeding, and irrigation, as well as packing up CSA shares and selling at market. This position provides her the physicality of farming merged with the broader societal impact of helping these families transition to America via the universal language of agriculture. With the Portland Farmers’ Market, Erika serves as a crew member for a downtown market and a Northwest market, where her tasks include clicking a counter as people enter the market, handling SNAP benefits, and answering random questions about what food is in season and how long the market is open. This is Erika engaged with the other side of local, sustainable food – the customers.

With each visit or observation I saw a slightly different Erika. It’s not that she was changing her personality; rather, each job or environment brought out a different side. At Little T, she felt like Erika at the campus dining hall and I was one of her TAs, listening as she eloquently spoke about her I.S. At both farmers’ markets, I saw Erika’s professional, non-profit face. Wearing the standard market crew member red t-shirt, she looked friendly and knowledgeable, attuned to her job and extremely approachable for any customer who had a question. At Mercy Corps, I observed Erika the farmer. In her Carhartts and hat, she seemed at ease pulling spinach, interacting with a refugee couple, and rinsing greens. I could very easily picture her at a larger farm, directing employees or interacting with customers. And finally, I chatted with Erika at her house, where she suddenly seemed exactly her age in baggy workout shorts and flip-flops, hanging out with the backyard chickens and talking to me about her childhood, while chuckling about family photos hung on the wall.

At the conclusion of the New York Times’ piece on millennials-at-home, Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, a Clark University psychologist, shared his belief that the time each young adult was taking to really figure out what they wanted to do is a positive, not a stamp of laziness. The author writes that Arnett “would be far more worried if [one particular millennial] had done what the previous generations did — stayed in whatever job she took after graduating, no matter how little she liked it — or if she were similarly underemployed but expressed no urgency about finding a better job. [This millennial], he said, was still searching for the right fit and refusing to settle for anything less.”

If I had met Erika last winter instead of this summer, or if she had been featured in a similar photo series, I would have witnessed Erika in transition, instead of already onto the next stage. Last winter, for the first time in her life, she was slightly lost. But because she knew how to analyze and reflect on her interests – a self-analysis honed at Wooster, via her farm internship, and during those difficult winter months – she was able to use the flexibility of living rent free to position herself at the next logical step of her education and future career. In September, Erika will move to Eugene to study for a Masters in Nonprofit Management, buoyed by her jobs at the Portland Farmers Market, her volunteer position on the Montavilla Farmers’ Market board, and her time working at the Refuge Gardens.

This summer, a few months before entering graduate school, Erika Takeo is already aware that her future career won’t be defined by a job description, but rather, by the deeper meaning and broader effects of that job. At Little T, she told me that her “perfect job” could take a number of forms, but needs to be focused on including populations that are left out of traditional systems and on creating vibrant, inclusive communities, adding that “it’s very important for me to have a job that fits those values”.

I wanted to contact Erika because I saw a rare chance to meet someone on the cusp of finding a career in a sector that I ardently believe in. It’s my hope that there are similar students graduating from college who have identified a passion and won’t stop until they’re working a job where their skills are utilized and they feel freedom to express those passions. This path will never have an exact, rigid timeline: Erika may find that to pursue a job after graduate school she’ll have to move back at home again at 25.

A few months after moving back to Portland last winter, Erika wrote on her blog that “food justice doesn’t happen just by giving people a box of food or starting up a grocery store in the neighborhood. Everyone needs living wages, adequate safety nets, access to their type of food, and an outlet to facilitate healing from past and present injustices.”

While those words came from Erika, they could have been written by any of the advocates mentioned at the start of this article. With her philosophy of food along with her awareness and curiosity, I could easily picture Erika Takeo joining a similar list of her peers in 10 years time. Stay tuned.