We recently received an email from a reader asking for career advice on how best to make a difference in the food system. He has given me permission to post it here with his name removed — I'll call him Reader D instead. Our suggestions follow, and we'd love to hear yours as well.
I have been reading The Ethicurean for about 3 years through Google reader. I truly enjoy reading your posts and trying to spread the word about the current state of our food chain.
Currently, I am working as a systems engineer outside of DC and am enrolled in an MBA program for a career change. The more I think about it, the more I know that I want to work in the food industry - working to change it. However, I am finding it increasingly difficult to identify a worthwhile opportunity where I can truly help change the current state of food and agriculture.
I have thought about entering the government consulting world and working with the Department of Ag or the FDA but am not sure if that will effect real change. I could always try to purchase a farm and raise produce/animals to supply the local restaurants and food markets, but I don't think it is a real use of my skills.
That is why I am asking for your help. Do you have any suggestions about careers in this field or people I can talk to? Thank you in advance for your help.
I put Reader D's question to the Ethicurean team via our list-serv. The "team" is made up of mostly of people just like this reader: eaters who got politicized a few years ago, although a couple of us work full-time for food-related nonprofits. We think that there are as many ways to change the food system as there are things wrong with it, so we can understand how one's mind can boggle at where to start: Grassroots — helping small farmers grow their businesses, say, or connecting low-income neighborhoods to fresh foods? Or grasstops — working directly on policy initiatives?
D., it's really just a matter of zeroing in on what pulls you, and then assessing how you can bring your talents to bear on that problem. I personally am most interested in issues around meat — perhaps because I was a vegetarian for 11 years — so to see what they are up close, I volunteer for a local ranch. Because I am a big, giant nerd, instead of mucking out pig pens, I help them manage their CSA by handling most of their email and Internet needs. Other Ethicurean team members are working to help start a local-food market or serving food at area food banks, among other activities. We really believe that you can learn a lot, including about what interests you, just by jumping in and doing.
"Just start talking to people," advises Jennifer M. "Chat up the farmers at the farmers markets, talk to friends, find a local farm organization (Grange or Farmers Union or what have you), go to food-related meetings — and just start talking about what you want to do or what you think you can offer, and listen to what their ideas and concerns are. What has amazed me about this whole process of setting up a local-foods market (see her post today on Local Roots) is the unexpected connections with people — a word in the right ear, even when you have no idea what that person can offer, can open so many doors."
I think that Reader D's technology background would make him very useful in helping farmers and local-food artisans market themselves up on the Internet, by setting them up with not just a simple website, but also a blog, email list-serv, and some sort of online shopping cart and back-end inventory management system. Simon Huntley of Small Farm Central has built an entire business around helping small farmers create an online presence. Perhaps he is looking for a business partner?
The Ethicurean's indefatigable school-food dynamo Debra Eschmeyer has lots of ideas close to home for Reader D.
Policy Row to Hoe: He could intern for a plethora of congressional offices and focus on Agriculture, Nutrition, Energy, Transportation, or Technology, all of which affect our movement for real food that sustains a culture, not a commodity. Focus on upcoming Child Nutrition Reauthorization (the federal legislation that determines what 30 millions kids eat at school) or the spending of the economic stimulus funds or green jobs.
System Row to Hoe: He could help build a system like Fresh Fork so that famers can deliver to one central location and institutions can purchase, i.e. so that the DC schools have easy access to the freshest, highest quality foods. Local foraging made easy! There is a farm-to-school DC team developing right now.
Prose Row to Hoe: Help some of the many food and farm non-profits in DC with their advocacy and communications efforts: i.e. National Family Farm Coalition, Rural Coalition, National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, Community Food Security Coalition, National Farmers Union, etc.
Row to Hoe: Go work at one of the amazing nearby farms while getting the MBA. Or volunteer to work at the USDA People's Garden.
Meanwhile, Ali B. reminds us that Reader D could likely find international work, say at NGOs working toward fair trade or to foster sustainable ag practices in Africa and South America. She would point him to Idealist.org, which has both job listings and volunteer opportunities.
What about you guys?