Monday, July 21, 2014

Hi, Margaret here.  Last week on the farm we harvested herbs from our medicinal berm and hung them up to dry.  In a week or so, the dried leaves will be crumbled into bins and stored for winter-time tea-making, but for now, the shipping container where we store most of our tools has been turned into a cave full of aromatic oils.

Olfaction is older than any of our other senses.  The olfactory bulb, where scents are processed, is separate from the rest of the somatosensory cortex, but has close access to the amygdala (emotions) and the hippocampus (memory).  More so than taste, sight, hearing, or touch, smell has the ability to form direct associations among memories, feelings, and sensory stimuli. I remember this because the hippocampus is curved like a seahorse and means “sea monster” in Greek.  When I was little I was afraid of the ocean; I associate salt water with that phobia, that time in my life. 

What do I associate these herbs with? 

  1. Mint. According to, mint is both noun, “an aromatic herb having opposite leaves and small whorled flowers,” and verb, “to make or fabricate; invent.” I associate mint with the imaginary people I thought lived in my backyard as a kid, and the houses I made for them out of sticks and grass and other plants.  I think of my mother, my childhood home.  In Greek mythology, Wikipedia tells me, mint is the herb of hospitality.  Its first known use in Europe was as a room deodorizer.
  2. Chamomile.  Those same medieval women who hung mint to dry probably also brewed tea with chamomile flowers. They read bodies of people the same way they read plants, isolating what was useful, what was problematic, and assigning different herbs for different conditions in a subjective and inexplicably gendered care practice. I associate chamomile with an upset stomach, with anxiety, with being unable to sleep as kid sitting up late at night at the kitchen table my mother watching me as I slowly sip a mug of tea.
  3. Lemon Balm.  The Wikipedia page says lemon balm may be the “honey-leaf” mentioned by Theophrastus; also it was in the herbal garden of a famous (but not to me) 15th century man.  No mention of the women witches and herbalists who cured their communities with its calming, soothing properties. The only promising phrase on the whole page: “in North America, melissa officinalis has escaped cultivation and spread into the wild.”  Google: Melissa is Greek for “bee.”  The melissai were Ephesian priestesses of the great mother goddess.  I associate lemon balm with this new knowledge, these associations.  I escape cultivation.  I fabricate, I invent.
  4. I am making mint, chamomile, and lemon balm tea right now as I am writing this, so that later I will associate these herbs with the process of fabrication.  I am sitting at my computer with twelve tabs open. I am sniffing and thinking, and wafting the olfactants of the herbs towards me in order to remember, to feel, to invent. 

Yale Sustainable Food Project’s Global Food Fellows Program supports the extracurricular study of food systems. In our inaugural year, four students proposed an innovative research topic or internship, pursuing ideas that could overturn the ecological, social, and economic deficiencies of today’s predominant food system. As a part of their experience, they will be checking in with the YSFP (and the world) through our Tumblr – stay tuned to read their reports and revelations! 

One of the most commonly used words in Nepali is “Tiksa,” which means good, I am good, or right depending on the situation. It’s one of those words that sits on the tip of your tongue and comes out instinctively if appropriate. When people ask me what interning at the Asia Network for Sustainable Agriculture and Bioresources (ANSAB) has been like, “tiksa” has become my usual response. The problem is if you were to ask a Nepali who relies on agriculture for their livelihood how their business was going, they probably would not respond with “tiksa.”

During my first few weeks in Nepal, I’ve been amazed by the pervasiveness of agriculture across the country. Even in Kathmandu Valley, arguably the nation’s most developed region, the food system remains rather decentralized.  Last weekend I traveled to a small community in the Valley, to visit a kindhearted Nepali family that wanted me to see how they lived. As I stood on the roof of their home, I admired the view. In one direction the international airport and the densely packed buildings of central Kathmandu loomed before me. In another, the small village of Lubhu—with its distinctive Newari architecture—appeared in the distance. And behind the house (as you can see from the picture below) rice paddies, which are still cultivated by the area’s families, offered a different type of view. The range of scenes visible from this single roof depicts many of the challenges facing Nepal as urbanization spreads and threatens many people’s livelihoods and access to food. As I have traveled around the country and started my work at ANSAB, one thing has become clear: there is no silver bullet that will just resolve all of the challenges facing Nepal’s agricultural people, but there are a few exciting programs which are actively moving towards that goal.


Data suggests that roughly one third of all Nepalis collectively manage some of their public lands, through community forest user groups. Due to the mountainous terrain, poor road conditions, and other factors that render several regions of Nepal infrequently accessible (and therefore make it difficult to sell food products), many subsistence farmers generate extra income by gathering Non-Timber Forest Products, such as spices, medicinal plants, and the ingredients for essential oils. By working with ANSAB to obtain Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification, they’ve been able to successfully tap into international markets and supply companies like Aveda. Despite the progress made, the use of pesticides on many farms continues to pollute watersheds, the desire to increase agricultural production continues to result in deforestation—which can increase the risk of landslides—and the economic interest in greater development continues to threaten biodiversity.

So thanks to funding from the United Nations Environmental Program, ANSAB teamed up with the FSC, and a small group of NGOs across the world, to pilot an innovative ecosystem services certification. One of my current projects involves creating a resource guide, which will explain how the certification provides environmental, social, and economic benefits. We hope that this guide will motivate many community forest user groups to seek ecosystem services certification, therefore increasing the sustainability of their agriculture and expanding the economic potential of their products. The certification also ensures that all community members are treated equitably regardless of gender, caste, or ethnic group.

In these first few weeks, I’ve learned that interconnectedness reigns supreme in the face of the complexity of Nepal’s economic, social, and political fabric. In other words, addressing any one issue (like pesticides on farms or a lack of access to a distributor for food products) requires resolving a host of other challenges, like poor education or insufficient access to information, inequality based on gender or social position, and difficulties dealing with government regulations. Despite these obstacles, the resilience of many individuals—and the emphasis on local communities—can empower people to seek change collectively.

The interconnectedness of various issues also means that gains made in a specific target area have a much wider impact. For instance, the ecosystem services certification also moves communities towards social justice, promotes improved governance, and enhances access to education. It’s this idea of interconnectedness that has been the most exciting part of my experience at ANSAB. Every day, a committed group of highly educated, highly talented individuals come together to help facilitate change. Instead of seeing the challenges as insurmountable, the staff works to organize communities, unleash the power of collective energy, and help villagers across Nepal to create more sustainable and economically viable lives rooted in agriculture. It is an honor and a pleasure to join them in this effort this summer.


ANSAB maintains a garden at its headquarters in Kathmandu. Many of the ingredients for our communal lunches are sourced from this garden.


It can take days to transport food from farms in the mountainous regions, like these pictured in the Annapurna Conservation Area, making it difficult for farmers to rely on food production alone for their income.

            Jacob Wolf-Sorokin is a rising junior at Yale University majoring in Ethics, Politics, and Economics, and an Academic-Year Intern at the Yale Sustainable Food Project. His summer internship at ANSAB is funded through the generous support of the Lazarus Global Food Fellows Program at the Yale Sustainable Food Project, the International Studies Fellowship at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, and the Tristan Perlroth Prize for Summer Foreign Travel at the MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies.

Saturday, July 19, 2014


This week we hear from student farm manager Ryan Mera Evans. A note on the following passage from Field Coordinator Jeremy Oldfield: Ryan’s story contains a graphic scene that is endemic in farm life. The Yale Farm, an acre of cropland surrounded by urban and suburban realities, is no exception. We keep a careful eye on how our compost is produced and where it is spread to ensure maximum safety and fertility. Enjoy!

“Find a pile of gold and sit on it.” 

― John Gardner, Grendel

Over the past two days, I unearthed six mountains of feathery, airy, crumbly, black humus from our compost piles. The six piles were the result of months of food scraps, crop refuse, and weeds. Over hours, under sun, and after plenty of turning, the piles shrink. Weeds are cooked, earthworms and woodlice feast, and old meals are broken down. What is left is a light, amorphous, and fertile substance, where one can’t distinguish between microorganisms, plant matter, minerals, or earthworm poop. Humified plant matter. We spread the black gold over our berms, where they provide flowers, herbs, and vegetables with the conditions they need to grow well. Our six compost bins, like all fluid components of the farm, are a concentrated visual reminder of the fuzzy boundary between new life, old life, and stasis, and kinesis.

But, in order to lubricate the spinning life wheel, our compost must be turned. So, two days ago, I set out with a shovel, a pitchfork, a strong back, and a weak mind to facilitate a “proper” compost.

I think about

  • The parallels between compost and human digestive process.
  • The differences between hot and cold compost.
  • Time, and the degradation of human byproducts (whether they are biologically, agriculturally, or commercially generated.
  • The suburbs of Northern Denver, and my family’s “just-throw-it-in-the-garden-bed” approach to composting.
  • How my fingers look suspiciously like earthworms, color, shape, and all.
  • How funky it would be if my fingers moved like earthworms.
  • Rats.

I was on my third pile of compost, in the groove, muscle memory on lock, when I hit something that wasn’t compost. I pulled the shovel away, pulled a drink from my water bottle, and, while resting, saw a pink and gray sausage poking out the compost.  

That doesn’t belong there.

I leaned in, water dribbling down my chin, towards the compost nubbin.

A rat. I just decapitated a rat. It was about four inches long. As big as the sausages I ate for dinner the other night. The top half of its body stuck out the soil, legs weakly pawed at the air, blood spurted out of the neck hole. Pink and Red, surrounded by a gray casing. This death didn’t belong in this compost. It was fresh, mammalian, still alive.

There must be more. A Nest. A click in the head. Out Out Out. Shovel in, shovel out. Rats out. Memory out. Remove the rats as quick as possible, cover up the hacked carcasses with soil, make the squeals and the unwanted movement stop.

When I was sure there were no more rats, I went to get a drink.

I finished my job. I turned the compost, and made sure that I didn’t approach it without care. Instead, I turned the compost softly. I didn’t stab, I folded, and created a new nest: one that cradles the future life in the compost. One day, the compost will nourish our acre, but this week, it is okay to care for the mobile mountains.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Last week, I was in charge of landscaping duty. With a weed-whacker and mower, I waged a war against tall grass and weeds. I still feel the rumble of the mower. What other tactile sensations exist at the farm? The tickle of our asparagus forest, the sweet, sticky juices from plucked gooseberries, the moist soil after it’s been kissed with fish emulsion. There are countless others. What helps me feel the farm? Hands. Soft hands, with small calluses on the top of the palms.

In middle school, I read Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. One character, Curly, wore a glove “fulla Vaseline.” An unlikely detail, and definitely not practical, but the glove did create a barrier between man and the work-tools, or man and the soil.

Back to my hands. I inspect the scabbed over blisters on the insides of my thumbs. I should’ve worn gloves.

Sometimes, agricultural-workers are called farmhands, a synecdoche that evokes a cloud of hands that till the soil and turn the compost. Popular images show the farmer, cupped and calloused hands pooled with soil. I wonder, what is a grower’s most important tool? Can it be the hands, that weed or transplant? Or is it the mind, filled with years of listening to the soil and other growers? Maybe season after season fuse the two together. I imagine two carrots, corkscrewed around each other, underneath the earth.

At the Wooster Square market, an exchange of crumpled bills signifies the trade between the grower and the consumer. Contact is one thing farmer’s markets provide. You put a place to a face. The interaction reveals the invisible fingerprints that cover our food, that are hidden under bright super market lights. When we trade, cash for veggies, or veggies for cash, we say: Yes, this food grew on an acre of land in Downtown New Haven; yes, we are students. You can tell by our hands.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Onagh MacKenzie ‘15 writes about her summer in Sitka:

By the grace of the universe, luck, and a generous fellowship, I managed to find my way back to Sitka, Alaska this summer. I happened upon this special island community in Southeast Alaska through a food-related internship last summer and promptly fell in love with its spirit, culture, and mountains that kiss the sea. Needless to say, I’ve been ready to return ever since my plane’s wheels took off last season.

I had been back in Sitka for a week when I got the call. It was a friend’s father, Floyd, on the other end of the line. Floyd was a longtime fisherman, handyman, and an expert in random but countless fields, as all Sitkans seem to be. He invited me out to fish; an opportunity for ocean travel, general fun, and a potential stocking of the freezer. I immediately accepted. 

All suited up in my mustang suit, an unsinkable, orange, full body flotation device, and I was ready to hop in the skiff. We headed out to Biorca, an island about forty-five minutes on relatively calm water from Sitka. It was Salmon Derby weekend in town, and the flashy sport fishing boats watched our well-worn skiff amble by enviously. It was the crack of dawn and we had time and the tide on our side. The competing boats couldn’t head out from the harbor until 7 am.

Outboard engine slowed and the waves making their presence known, we began the ritual baiting of the hook. Watching a seasoned fisherman complete this initial task, one instantly becomes aware that fishing is steeped in tradition. Floyd prefers to use herring as bait, meticulously cutting the small dart of silver on the underside, down the belly to the tail. His confident hands hook one hook in the fish’s flesh, leaving the second to snag the too-curious salmon. A needle is then pierced through the fish, dragging the line through the eye. The eyeballs are kept in their socket at all costs, maintaining every possible shred of herring authenticity. The line then wraps around the chin, precisely twice. Floyd’s signature flair comes when he curls the herring, right at the neck and inserts a toothpick to keep the neck turned, giving the fish a realistic spin when trailing in the water. When I ask about this method, Floyd admits that he doesn’t know where he learned this and isn’t sure that it works better than any others, but it’s Floyd’s flourish and he’ll practice it as long as he fishes.

Almost immediately after we cast and start to troll, moving forward very slowly in the skiff, we sense a tug on the line. When Floyd places the pole in my greenhorn hands, I am immediately flustered, worried I don’t have enough arm strength to hoist what I could swear is a record-breaking King salmon on the other end. Floyd is completely unruffled however and clearly amused by my stress. After a few seconds of my unaided floundering, he steps in with seasoned wisdom: hold my pole up and don’t fight the salmon. Let the fish run. A tired King salmon is what we want in our boat.

And a tired King it is. Two in fact by the time we decide to head in, only one short of the three salmon allowed for a subsistence salmon permit in this opening. We stop at a floating cleaning station on our way into the harbor. As we de-head and gut our Kings, Floyd shares more local knowledge. Kings, I learn, have a different shape, tail form, patterns, and purple coloring on the scales, from any of the other four pacific salmon species, Pink, Coho, Chum, or Sockeye. We let our cleaning scraps slide into the ocean, an easy snack for some lucky sea lions.

We pull up to my host family’s driveway and Floyd breaks the news. He already has enough salmon in his fridge and he doesn’t eat frozen salmon. The logical conclusion: I am begged to take home two freshly caught, twenty-pound King salmon.

My host-parents, not fishermen themselves, are clearly overjoyed. Hours later, covered in vibrant orange flesh and surprisingly sticky scales, Peter, my host-dad, and I have learned to fillet a salmon. Definitely not the best fillet job an Alaskan salmon has seen, but it will have to pass. Cleaning our hands up a bit, we can’t help ourselves. We head to the computer and look up Alaskan King salmon fillet prices in an upscale Seattle market. By our rough metrics, we have over $400 of pink protein in our fridge.

After we bury the skeletons in the garden for added nutrients, we break out the phone book, calling up every non-fishing family friend we can think of. Unsurprisingly we’re met with overjoyed responses. Peter and I load up the car and begin the salmon drop-off. Laden with hugs, recipe suggestions, and a dozen fresh eggs from a recipient’s flock, we return home to our own bounty, excited for a week of salmon-centric dining and completing what we fondly coin to be our “circle of salmon happiness.”  

Friday, June 27, 2014

Hey there y’all. It’s Ryan here again from the YSFP, writing about this week’s farm action. Surprisingly, this week has been less involved on the Yale Farm and more community-based, out and about in New Haven. Tuesday involved traveling to Woodbridge, CT down yonder to help Massaro Community Farm with their Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. Wednesday involved lots of work planting ginger in the Yale Greenhouse as well as an in depth class on the economics of small-scale farming taught by Mark Bomford. Thursday involved a day of food preparation and cooking on West Campus for a much-needed almost-end-of-the-week Happy Hour event at the West Campus Urban Farm. But no matter what, farmers still return to their farm for maintenance, harvesting, and market as is the usual rhythm of Friday and Saturday.

 With the laundry list of event updates on the table, it’s interesting to see how each event has one thing in common: community. Despite Massaro and West Campus both being located down the road, each farm serves its own micro-community that, too, is separate from the Yale Farm community. And stretching further, the Yale Farm YSFP micro-community differs from the active volunteers in the New Haven community, school-centered volunteers, City Seed produce buyers, and even the managerial staff behind the scenes. Even further, at Massaro, the workers we helped this week share a very different micro-community compared to the Massaro owners, the CSA families coming for produce, and even the residents of the houses across the street. And finally the combination of graduate students, faculty, researchers, scientists, PHD students, and interns that interact on the West Campus farm all find themselves coming together.

 On the surface, each farm represents a geographical location; a single establishment for the purpose of producing foodstuffs for a local community. That local community, however, has an amorphous identity, molding to each person or program individually according to their desire. Each establishment, as articulated best by Mark Bomford in his lecture, sells much more than produce; they sell hope for a better tomorrow, sustainable food production, and interpersonal relationships among customers and producers. All of a sudden, farming becomes much more than merely growing and selling or supply and demand. Instead, farms transform a group of people separated in their daily actions and desires, bringing these individuals together in one central location.

 This very concept of micro-communities on such a small scale underlines a much more important point: food has the power to promote change. Three farms, all within a ten-mile radius of one another, have the capacity to connect different peoples for different reasons in different ways. Further expanding on the positive externalities of micro-communities, farms have the capacity to promote healthy morals, greener thinking, food literacy from the ground to the kitchen table, and even interaction with a wider group of New Haven residents. So much change and so much influence in only a small fraction of a city let alone a sand grain of the world. But what if the change wasn’t positive? What about times of war, poverty, infertility of soil, natural disaster, drought, flash floods, or depression? What about the negative externality of pollution from industrial facilities, premature soil infertility from over-tilling land, or even illegal labor wages? Sometimes promoting change can mean preventing change.

 So what did I learn from the farm this week? Food matters. From the geographical location where the crop is planted to the people taking care of that crop to the community collecting that harvested food to the people being served with what one buys, food is involved in a much more complicated and important process than meets the eye. We witness that process every day from sunrise to sunset and yet remain ignorant to how many struggles were labored through to make each part of the food-chain puzzle align perfectly. And, inversely, we remain ignorant to how drastically life can change when just one of those steps does not fit exactly right. Food is important and we need to think before we eat.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Sophie Mendelson BK ‘15 has worked as a farm manager and a senior advisor for the Yale Sustainable Food Project. She is spending the summer working for an investment firm. 

This summer I am working for an institution named after a park named after a creek named after a rock. The irony is inescapable. What I do each day has very little to do with parks, and even less to do with creeks. Does it have anything to do with rocks? From my desk I can hear the jackhammers chewing through the sidewalk six floors below, feel the vibrations humming through the foundation of the building, up, up, up. What is our foundation made of? This is the question that I am trying to answer.

I have to admit that I felt a small, secret thrill at the prospect of working this summer in an industry that has been deemed conventionally Important. Ah, people who did not know me would say, nodding, as I told them that I would be working in finance. That makes sense, they would think. I would not have to explain myself this time, not have to face the unspoken accusation in their questions, You go to Yale but you’re working on a farm? You go to Yale but you want to be a farmer? (Translation: You are wasting your talent. You are wasting your good luck. You are wasting an opportunity that so many others would use to do something Important). Despite my deep reservations about working for an investment firm, and despite my conviction in the importance of farming, I could not help but feel some amount of relief that this summer, at least, I would not have to stand guilty as charged.

I think it is this matter of Importance, though, that sits at the root of a discomfort with the financial world that I have not been able to shake. When I’m farming, I feel hugely important, though on a very small scale. I matter immensely to the lives of the plants and animals that it is my job to care for. I make a difference in a tangible way to the people who eat the food that I help produce. At the firm, I sometimes feel Important – combing through international financial news, analyzing managers for their potential to make money multiply, watching Bloomberg play over the flat screen TVs that flank either end of the office. The scale of the Importance that I feel at the firm is large, pulsing through a network of relationships that spans the continents. Expanding, contracting, warping – a global economy, changing in constant response to itself. But the grand Importance of this system feels inflated and even empty, a huge balloon floating untethered, tugging us all skyward (or so at least we’d like to think). It is Important because we have all agreed that it is. Where an ecosystem indisputably is, an economy, for the most part, is imagined. 

Which brings us back to the question of foundations. I feel myself straying into literalist territory: it’s only real if I can touch it. I reject that notion. But when the connection to anything “real” can only be drawn at the top (the experienced fall-out of profits and losses) and seldom at the bottom (the relationship between price and value), the economic system begins to look precariously top-heavy. The Barbie model of capitalism – she can’t stand up on her own.

The economy strikes me as a system of metaphors. Numbers standing for relationships, for worth, for people’s lives expanding and contracting. Metaphors that sometimes forget what they are referring to: parks and creeks and rocks. Six floors down they are tearing up the sidewalk and planting trees.

Agricultural Adventures in Peru

Today’s post comes from Global Food Fellow, Vivienne Hay CC’14. The Yale Sustainable Food Project’s Global Food Fellows Program funds students who have proposed an innovative research topic or internship, pursuing ideas that could overturn the ecological, social, and economic deficiencies of today’s predominant food system. 

Exactly two weeks after my last Yale graduation ceremony, I began the 27 hour trip to Cuzco (the heart of Peru, the place where Hiram Bingham acquired those Incan artifacts for Yale and also site where some of the world’s most ancient agriculture). My high school self would have been horrified to find that, shortly after graduating from Yale with a Physics degree (a feat that was meant to radically expand my opportunities and open doors that I hadn’t even known existed), I was going to work on subsistence farms.

The transformation in my attitude towards agriculture began between finishing high school and starting Yale, when I took part in Harvest, a Yale pre-orientation program that involved spending a week working on a local farm. I thought of it as an opportunity to learn about agriculture, something that was important but peripheral to my twenty-first-century life and that I would probably never learn about again. Over that week, though, I began to realize how skillful and intricate farming was. My interest was piqued. I applied to become a Harvest leader upon my return to Yale, but only, as I remarked to friends, because Harvest happened during the summer so being a Harvest leader was like getting a whole additional experience ‘for free’, at least in the sense that I didn’t have to spend any of my coveted Yale time on what seemed to be a sideline interest.

But as I gained more practical experience working on farms, I began to want to spend my precious Yale time studying agriculture. I began taking courses on farming, urbanization and food systems and attending as many related speeches and symposia as I could. I also spent a summer consulting for a large-scale poultry producer. What had started as a one-off, one-week visit to a farm had become one of the defining aspects of my Yale career and as I began to reflect on what I wanted to do after graduation, it became clear that I wanted it to become one of the important strands of my post-Yale life too.

Though I’ve learned about agriculture in academic and professional settings, I’ve never spent more than a week at a time working on a farm — a gaping hole in my knowledge and understanding of agriculture. So, over the next two months, I’ll be volunteering on farms in Peru, learning about agricultural techniques and agricultural communities, doing both (academic, ethnographic) fieldwork and (hands-in-the-dirt) work in fields. I’ll be blogging throughout and will keep you posted!

Vivienne Hay graduated from Yale in May of 2014 with a degree in Physics. After her summer examining large and small agriculture in Peru she’ll begin her post graduate work at McKinsey & Company Inc. in New York. 

Agrobiodiversity and Food Security: Barriers and incentives to the incorporation of native and traditional crops into household diets in Bolivia

Today’s post comes from Global Food Fellow, Alder Keleman MESc’06, MA’12, PhD ’15. The Yale Sustainable Food Project’s Global Food Fellows Program funds students who have proposed an innovative research topic or internship, pursuing ideas that could overturn the ecological, social, and economic deficiencies of today’s predominant food system.

Hello! My name is Alder Keleman, and I’m writing to introduce myself. I am a fifth-year doctoral student in environmental anthropology, a joint program hosted by the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, the Yale Anthropology Department, and the New York Botanical Gardens. I’m receiving support from the YSFP Global Food Fellowship this summer to help me put the finishing touches on my dissertation research. For the better part of the last two years, I’ve been based in Cochabamba, Bolivia, where I’m studying the role that agrobiodiversity (or native and traditional crops) plays in household diets, and in food culture more broadly.

My dissertation explores one of the great conundrums in the contemporary study of agrobiodiversity: among the regions which boast the world’s richest crop diversity, many also harbor high levels of human poverty. This paradox becomes even more puzzling when taking into account a growing body of research suggesting that native and traditional crops are often highly nutritious. For example, quinoa (native to the Andes) has become famous for its high-quality protein; minor leafy greens or yellow-fleshed sweet potatoes are rich in vitamins; and brightly colored crops, like Mexican maize or Andean purple potatoes, exhibit high levels of antioxidants. Nonetheless, in many crop centers of origin, including the Andes, the Chiapanecan/Guatemalan highlands, the Horn of Africa, and Northeastern India, levels of malnutrition are worryingly high, especially among children. Meanwhile, native and traditional crop varieties are themselves is under threat due to climate change, agricultural modernization, and increasing rural-urban migration.

These patterns hold true for Bolivia. Despite being a center of origin and diversity for potato, quinoa, maize, peanut, and many other important food crops, Bolivia exhibits the highest levels of poverty and malnutrition in South America. In the region where I am working, my own data suggests that stunting in children under age five affects approximately one third of the population. Studies have shown that stunting has important ramifications not only for the physical health of children, but also for their capacity for academic achievement, and even their long-run earning potential.

But why should this be the case, in a place where nutrient-rich foods should theoretically be available in abundance? To untangle this puzzle, my dissertation project takes an interdisciplinary approach, using both quantitative and qualitative field methods. Specifically, I am focusing on an 80-km rural-urban corridor stretching between the city of Cochabamba and the municipality of Colomi, a highly ecologically diverse region which stretches from the Andean subtropics (approx. 2200 masl) to the highland puna (above 4000 masl).

Through qualitative ethnographic research, I am gathering data on the past and contemporary culinary uses of crops like native potatoes, quinoa, oca, and tarwi, and the cultural meanings with which they are invested. In quantitative research, I am carrying out a two-period survey with 258 households in the rural-urban corridor stretching from the city of Cochabamba to the municipality of Colomi. This survey seeks to quantify the extent to which vulnerable households are consuming NTC’s, and to understand the contribution that these crops make to household nutritional well being.

Funding from the Yale Sustainable Food Project is supporting an important sub-element of this larger dissertation project. In parallel to the second phase of my household survey, I have been reporting data on child height-weight measurements back to the communities in which the first phase of the survey was carried out. As part of this process, with the help of a team of Quechua-speaking nutritionists, we are organizing workshops to provide basic nutrition education that will help female household heads understand the types, causes, and treatments of child malnutrition. These workshops also serve as a forum for gathering additional qualitative data using participatory methods. Specifically, we are exploring the local conditions that generate food insecurity, and asking what barriers (or incentives) exist for the incorporation of nutrient-rich native and traditional crops into household diets. These meetings also serve as jumping-off points for a series of oral histories and household observations with female household heads, which we are undertaking in five of the communities under study.

These activities bridge the qualitative and quantitative aspects of my project, and provide new information to communities and households, which will let them better address nutrition and child health. Additionally, through these activities we hope to identify, distill, and disseminate “best practices” in the local use of native and traditional crops. With the support of my local host organization, Fundación PROINPA, we plan to use the data gathered to generate a suite of Quechua and Spanish-language educational materials, outlining positive uses of NTC’s to underpin good nutrition.

Of course, I am not doing this all on my own. I am lucky enough to have the support of a team of 10 bright young Bolivians – a group consisting primarily of nutritionists from Cochabamba’s Universidad Mayor de San Simón (UMSS), but including individuals with training in agronomy, linguistics, and nursing. Most of them are fluent Quechua speakers, and all have received training in social science data collection and research ethics. As a complement to the support of my host organization, Fundación PROINPA, I am also collaborating with colleagues at the local branch of the NGO, World Vision, and coordinating with government-run health posts at the community level. The Universidad Mayor de San Simón’s Biomedical Research is also providing intellectual and institutional support for these activities.

In sum, the activities supported by YSFP’s Global Food Fellowship are the capstone to two years of fieldwork here in Bolivia, and are providing a rewarding way to give back to the communities and the institutions that have supported my research. I’m looking forward to sharing our progress along the way!

Alder Keleman is a fifth-year doctoral student in environmental anthropology, a joint program hosted by the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, the Yale Anthropology Department, and the New York Botanical Gardens.

Alder Keleman, Lucy Vera Quinaya, and Vanessa Calle Cruz prepare survey materials in the subtropical town of Corani Pampa. (Taken by Alark Saxena; 13 June 2014) 

Nutritionists Fridda Ramos Rodríguez and Marioni Enriquez Foronda explain the use of nutritional supplements to combat stunting to a group of mothers in Toncolí. These supplements were provided by the NGO World Vision to families with children showing low height-for-age. (Taken by Alder Keleman; 10 May 2014.) 

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Hi, Margaret here. I’m a Lazarus summer intern from Iowa City, Iowa. This is the first summer I’ve spent entirely away from home, and I’ve been thinking lately about the differences between farming in New Haven and the rural Midwest. It has to do with a lot more than geography: the Yale Farm’s categorization as an urban farm has all sorts of ecological, economic, and cultural significance, all of which I am slowly starting to learn about.

Maybe the most obvious signifiers of the Farm’s urban setting are the pieces of glass and metal that occasionally surface, but this land’s tenuous status as agricultural area is also manifested in the composition of the soil and in the topography of the Farm itself. In the field closest to the road the soil has tested high for lead contamination, so we only grow flowers there, no edible food. In a month or so, that field will be full of blooming zinnias, sunflowers, and other brightly-colored plants; a lovely yet somewhat surreal buffer zone with truck exhaust on one side and poisonous metals underneath.

I think this strange paradox is at the heart of urban farming. Earlier this week, Stacy Spell, a New Haven community organizer and gardening guru, came by to pick up some tomato seedlings for the many community gardens he runs in the city. He talked to us about his experiences with his newest project, which involves planting vegetables and flowers in empty crates and barrels around some of New Haven’s roughest neighborhoods, and described how these micro-gardens give people something to take ownership of, a reason to be out in the streets. But he also stressed the aesthetic aspect: “we’re bringing beauty into a place that’s not supposed to be beautiful,” he said.

For Spell, this is a constructive contradiction; the process of creating societal change is closely linked to the difficult, labor-intensive work of carving out a fertile green space in an antagonistic environment. The struggle of transforming land has deep parallels with the struggle to construct societies.

While Spell’s aims involve food justice, I can’t help but think of more pernicious uses of agriculture as social engineering in American history, including the plantation economy. The intersection of food, place, and the past, was something that another guest on the farm, Michael Twitty, discussed. Twitty, a culinary historian, Judaic scholar, and food writer (check out his website shared with us some of his experiences investigating food as cultural connector in America’s various diasporic communities. He spoke particularly about African American food stories, about how the terrible isolation of being transplanted from one place to another could be alleviated by communal cooking and sharing of cultural knowledge about food.

Here too, a paradox is at work: the pain of separation, of oppression, creates the conditions in which a new kind of connection and power can be formed. Twitty doesn’t hold any utopic vision of a perfectly integrated, perfectly multicultural society, but he thinks if we make any progress towards understanding those different from ourselves, it will come through food, and the places where food is grown.

So far this summer, I’ve loved getting to know my fellow interns in the shared space of the Yale Farm, but I can’t wait for the community to keep on expanding. This Friday is the first volunteer day of the summer. If you’re in New Haven, feel free to stop by 345 Edwards St: eat a strawberry or a leaf of kale, and tell us a little about where you’re from and your food story. We’d love to see you there!