Profiling Women Changing the Way We Eat: Zoe Holloman | Civil Eats

Profiling Women Changing the Way We Eat: Zoe Holloman

Temra Costa is a sustainable food and farming advocate and author of Farmer Jane: Women Changing the Way We Eat. Civil Eats will feature her profiles of some of America’s women farmers and food advocates over the coming weeks.

In a time when kids don’t know the difference between potatoes and rocks, it’s refreshing that grassroots organizations are working to rebuild their community’s food economy and teaching invaluable skills of food production and sustainability to our next generation of eaters. I feel sympathetic towards youth today, they have to juggle mixed messages about what to eat while our world goes streaming into cyber space. They are the ones that are charged with putting a new foot forward to solve our current challenges of industrial food and the obesity and diabetes epidemics. Organizations such as Growing Power in Milwaukee and Chicago, The Food Project, and our featured organization, The Massachusetts Avenue Project (MAP) in Buffalo, New York, are showing kids how food is grown and are simultaneously teaching them critical life lessons in health, nutrition, environment, and business.

This brings us to Zoe Holloman, an educator and organizer for MAP that started the youth enterprise program called Growing Green Works (2006), and currently teaches business development to youth that lead the program. Formally trained as an Urban Planner at Cornell University, Zoe found her love for community organizing in Buffalo. She has worked with the Cooperative Development Institute (CDI) in Greenfield, Massachusetts, and has developed youth economic education programs in New York City as well. I caught up with Zoe to learn about what makes MAP’s program part of the solution to our food, health, and economic woes.

TC: Tell us some more about MAP and its diverse set of programs.

ZH: MAP has been running since 1992 and we’ve been farming since 2002. In Growing Green we employ about 50-60 local teens each year that grow organic food on our urban farm. Each year they grow about 4,000 lbs of produce and distribute another 2,000 lbs from local farms to local neighborhoods where getting fresh food is hard (we call em’ food deserts). Our teens work collectively and in groups to find ways to make our food system more local—buying local, eating fresh food, teaching people to grow and cook, and changing policy to support local people are some of our main program messages.

In addition to empowering youth to be leaders, we have a few programs running. They include:
• Mobile Market – a big truck that transports our food to five different community sites including community health clinics, senior housing complexes and municipal housing developments. Our prices are close to cost and we accept food stamps to make it more affordable.
• Growing Green Works – our youth managed organic food products enterprise. Teens get hands on experience producing and selling food to consumers and businesses. They run the business from day-to-day and generate income to fund our youth employment. Their products are in over 35 stores, including Wegmans-one of the largest grocery chains in the nation.
• Farming – our teens learn about sustainable farming methods that help grow healthy food. Growing food from seed to harvest, vermiculture [worm composting], composting, and aquaponics (raising fish and plants together in tanks). Through these hands on farmer training programs, our teens raise chickens, Talapia, worms, and of course lots of veggies, fruit and herbs.
• Community Education and Outreach – our teens organize and plan local food events to raise awareness about why eating locally is important. Some of our annual events are: Eat UP Youth Conference on Food, Be Vocal, Eat Local Week, workshops in schools and participating in local policy reform and planning.

TC: How is MAP pushing the envelope for sustainable food in your area?

ZH: I think that we push the envelope by showing that fresh local food can come from and be for people with low incomes. We are building local assets in neighborhoods and people that have been neglected for a long time. By working with disadvantaged communities we’re showing that the local food movement is for everyone, not just for the affluent. We’ve also included youth in our decision making processes – something that everyone treats as really taboo. People often ask us “what do the youth think?” We say, “You should ask them!” Our philosophy is that you have to treat youth like they are important if you want to empower them. You have to invest the time and effort to teach youth to be full participants in our communities and we do that.

Another thing that ruffles feathers around here is that we address policy around food. We appreciate the place of food pantries, but often that food is unhealthy and we want to address a dysfunctional system that makes unhealthy food very available to people because they are poor. We believe that healthy food is a right and not a luxury.

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TC: How do your programs impact people other than youth?

ZH: By making fresh food more accessible, to people. Our Mobile Market helps people get healthier food. This year we are starting a low income CSA from our urban farm. It’s such a beautiful place that is producing food, joy, and some curiosity for our neighborhood. We use the farm to highlight models for sustainable methods. Our strawbale greenouse was the first of its kind in Buffalo, as was our aquaponics system. Then we got the “chicken ordinance” passed so its legal to have chickens in your back yard. By promoting local food to schools, restaurants and urban residents we are helping to support the local economy and lessen pollution from transporting food from far away places –that helps us all. Globally, the food sector is the #1 contributor to climate change, more than any other sector of the economy . . . so its not a minor issue, it’s really important for us all.

TC: Are you seeing economic sustainability a possibility for your programs?

ZH: The short answer is yes. Through our Mobile Market, we have a weekly farmstand at our urban farm, and we are starting this CSA as a pilot. Our youth enterprise has really been embraced by local businesses, which is great, but we have a good ways to go to be at the point where we can actually fund all we do. We do a lot of things that don’t really generate income for us. Providing fresh organic food at cost doesn’t make money but it’s a balance. We understand that it’s going to be a gradual process working up to running our entrepreneurial operations that afford us hundreds of thousands of dollars each year. Ever year we’re making our enterprise more efficient and trying to be very creative in marketing, outreach and fundraising. The corporate world has some good things to teach non-profits.

Also, we can see the local food movement is gaining popularity, consumers are becoming more informed and we’re starting to see that in the community. There are many more famers markets in Western New York then there were just five years ago.
Ultimately though, the big challenge is that food delivery systems in the U.S. and in the world for schools, hospitals, universities, etc., have evolved to support a globalized food system NOT local farms, local people, health or nutrition, so we really need to address that, otherwise its like trying to stop a waterfall with a dixi cup.

TC: Any other items you would like people to know about?

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ZH: Organizations like us are really struggling to carry on our work in the midst of harsh financial realities. We need the political will and some resources on our side. Anything you can do towards that [effecting political change and providing resources] is great!

Temra Costa is a nationally-recognized sustainable food advocate and author of Farmer Jane: Women Changing the Way We Eat (Gibbs Smith, 2010). She's been working to change the food system, from farm gate to plate, since 2003. She resides in Sonoma County, CA where she writes, gardens, and makes delicious things. Learn more about Farmer Jane and her work by visiting Read more >

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  1. Jessi
    I heart MAP and I heart Zoe and Erin!!! Real good people with real big brains and real big hearts! If there are any millionaires out there reading this, you should send MAP a big fat check. And if you're not a millionaire, then you should give what you can or stop by and see them if you're ever in the neighborhood. I was so lucky last summer and was blown away! :)

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