With the celebration of World Food Day on Oct. 16, it seems appropriate to explore the subject of how food and economics are integrally entwined, particularly for women, who often find innovative ways of bringing these two things full circle. I caught up with two women, Melissa Willis and Ellen Zachos, to hear their thoughts on food, advocacy and making a difference.
Cydney Martin: World Food Day, which is a program of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, has set the goal of Zero Hunger by 2030. Would you share areas of your work that you consider to be most significant to making this happen?
Mellisa Willis: The Double Up Food Bucks (DUFB) program at the Santa Fe Farmers’ Market is designed to improve the health and nutrition of low-income families and increase their access to healthy, local food by doubling Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. In 2016, over $220,000 SNAP and DUFB dollars were spent at the Santa Fe Farmers’ Market alone, providing over 600,000 servings of fresh fruits and vegetables to our local families.
With close to 20 percent of Santa Fe County’s population living below the poverty line, not only does this program have a positive impact on individuals and their families; it’s also incredibly beneficial to our economy by keeping dollars local and directly supporting the farmers and ranchers who work tirelessly to provide the freshest, most nutrient-dense foods possible.
Ellen Zachos: I like that the theme for World Food Day this year focuses on migration, food security and rural development because all of these things relate to foraging. If you look at food in different cultures you’ll notice that many of the plants we consider weeds are cultivated as food crops. Yet most Americans see these plants as having no use at all. Many wild edible plants are plentiful, easy to harvest, and require no time or money to cultivate. Foraging offers people the chance to feed themselves well. And it exposes us to foods from other cultures.
CM: What is the biggest mistake you’ve made in your food journey?
MW: I think the biggest mistake I’ve made is thinking that the journey is a straight line. As with everything, there are twists and turns and bumps in the road. Practicing patience with myself when I eat poorly, or purchase chunks of my weekly groceries from “big box” stores instead of 100 percent from local sources has become necessary as I allow for an evolution of eating to happen.
A few years ago my family undertook what we called the Local Bite Challenge, where we challenged ourselves to eat 100 percent locally (food sourced from within 100 miles) for 100 days, with a set spending limit per week. This opened my eyes to what locally grown foods we have available to us, as well as what’s not available. It also opened my eyes to how expensive eating 100 percent local can be, and how disheartening that fact can be, given the bigger picture challenges that come along with it.
EZ: I ate a lot of crap when I was young. I didn’t realize how important it was to know where your food comes from and what you’re putting in your body. Food was very connected to body image, and loving food made me feel guilty, because I somehow thought that eating was bad or forbidden. I’d eat stuff with chemicals in it because it had fewer calories, not realizing that that was not a healthy choice. Now I understand that if you eat real, good food, and live a healthy lifestyle, that’s what’s important.
Food is nurturing on so many levels. It’s communal. I love cooking with friends, gathering food together and eating together. I appreciate unique, unbuyable flavors. Foraged flavors are unlike anything you’ll find in a store. I enjoy everything from the harvest to the prep and eating. To me, it’s a great joy to feed other people freely. To make food that pleases and delights my friends and family— that’s enormously satisfying!
CM: What made you take the leap into your profession with food?
MW: A little over a decade ago, in fairly rapid succession, I read Harvest for Hope by Jane Goodall and then had the pleasure of hearing her speak. Harvest for Hope provided an important awakening within me about my part in the wide and deepening damage that is being inflicted on this lovely planet of ours. In addition to outlining how dire our situation is, she also offered easy, actionable steps toward softening our footsteps and working to heal our environment (buy a reusable water bottle, eat less meat, grow a few of your own veggies, carpool when you can, etc.).
EZ: I was a professional gardener in NYC and loved working with plants, but I primarily worked with ornamentals. My interest gradually shifted to plants that are not just pretty to look at, but also useful and edible. It’s always been important for me to love my work, and as wild food became the thing I’m most passionate about, I decided to make my living teaching people how to safely harvest and cook with wild foods. It’s challenging, because, let’s face it—foraging is a niche subject. But it’s what I love.
Cydney Martin is the Santa Fe County Family and Consumer Sciences agent for NMSU. She’s a fourth-generation farmer, an Aging-in-Place specialist, a Master Food Preserver, and a member of the Santa Fe Food Policy Council.
Melissa Willis is the program director at the Santa Fe Farmers’ Market Institute. You can follow her path of food adventures at evergrowingfarm.com
Ellen Zachos is the author of seven books. She has written about foraging for About.com and is a regular contributor to Edible.com. Her passion for foraging is highlighted in her books The Wildcrafted Cocktail and Backyard Foraging: 65 Familiar Plants You Didn’t Know You Could Eat.