By Makiah Josephson, Slow Food USA Communications Coordinator
The Slow Food community is proud to have food leaders from many different backgrounds coming together for the pursuit of good, clean and fair food for all. Here’s the story of an innovator in the food justice world who spearheaded a nonprofit with the goal of helping to further food equity in her Black community. Erin Cole embodies everything that Slow Food strives and works towards in the food justice movement. She is the co-founder of Nuturting Our Seeds, a Detroit-based nonprofit that focuses on educating people about sustainable farming and nutrition. This led her to the opportunity to become a delegate at Slow Food’s 2022 Terra Madre in Bra, Italy. This is the inspiring and compelling story of Food Leader Erin Cole.
Joining the Food Justice Movement
Erin was born and raised in Detroit, Michigan. As a young teenager, she started working for her local Boys and Girls Club. She later moved on to working at a soul food restaurant and continued working in restaurants throughout her teen and college years. While she attended college in Nashville, she started bartending school. Always finding herself working in the food industry and never quite realizing why, Erin figured out that food was one of her biggest passions; she always kept a job within the food industry. She is an educator at heart and later completed a Master’s degree in Education. Erin settled into her career as a math teacher and stayed close to where she grew up in Detroit. She often visited her great aunt and soon noticed a need for change in her Eastern Detroit neighborhood.
There were many open fields, high grasses and abandoned houses in her predominantly Black neighborhood. Erin decided to start planting flowers and began to research soil testing procedures and techniques. This project sparked an interest in her to learn more about farming and biodiversity, and with the help of a few neighbors, a plan to plant on a larger scale in the area was born. As her project started gaining momentum, more and more community members joined in on her passion project, with food baskets being a big hit thanks to members in the community chipping in time to make it possible.
Becoming a Food Leader
In 2014, Erin co-founded Nurturing our Seeds. The organization operates a farm in vacant lots and provides healthy foods, fresh herbs and radical compassion to the Detroit community and beyond. Erin and founding members have mentored and grown the organization to have a CSA program, a variety of produce, volunteers and soil education. Her team takes great pride in the work that they do and everyone enjoys being connected through this organization. Nurturing Our Seeds has grown mostly through word of mouth and they like to call themselves “Detroit’s best-kept secret.”
“Food is an everyday thing! We want to help solve food problems. We want solutions!” said Erin. “Many black folks in Detroit don’t have a grocery store within a mile radius.” Erin recalls a time when taking her great aunt shopping and being able to smell the spoiled chicken on their way home. Erin immediately went back to the grocery store to return it, and the staff treated them like criminals. Due to racial disparity in Detroit, many BIPOC neighborhoods are sold low-quality and expired foods at overmarked prices. “Food policy needs to change! There aren’t organic options or a plant-based push,” mentioned Erin. Food access is also a problem in Detroit with a severe lack of variety and healthy options. Many Detroit neighborhoods suffer from being forced to accept whatever is offered despite the lack of quality, said Erin.
People in her community need more options, and her organization wants to provide resources and education for Detroit residents, farmers and anyone else in the food world. Nurturing Our Seeds is currently working with the Detroit Black Farmer Land Fund to start building a co-op with other farmers. The organization was also the recipient of the Social Impact Fund from the American Heart Association, which is providing them with upgrades and bringing a farm stand to their land for easier accessibility to sustainably-grown food. Her team hopes to continue growing and help more people feel connected through healthy food and farming.
Terra Madre is the largest biannual gathering of the Slow Food network and is a living example of how food can be a bridge to peace. It is the biggest and most important international event dedicated to food politics, sustainable agriculture and the environment. “I was super excited to attend Terra Madre as a sponsored delegate. I had studied Slow Food practices before I knew about the Slow Food movement,” said Erin. She was in her math classroom when she found out about an opportunity to go to Terra Madre; she immediately filled out the application during her lunch break. “Once I was accepted, my school told me that I wouldn’t be able to take time off. I decided to allow myself to go and be free and not trapped in a classroom. When I found out I was selected, it was life changing. I was ready to walk away from education and I quit my job,” mentioned Erin.
Erin found another job a week later with the Detroit Food Academy. Her peers were excited for her to attend Terra Madre and share what she would learn with the team. “It was transformative. I was sitting in a space where people care and food is love,” said Erin. She didn’t know how she was going to attend, but people started offering her help including the Detroit Black Farmer Land Fund, which sponsored her plane tickets and event activities, and Slow Food, which helped to cover her accommodation and meals. She was excited to be among people from different ages and backgrounds. “The food experience was absolutely phenomenal, and one of my best memories was sitting around with other delegates drinking limoncello and having authentic and genuine conversations.” Erin stated that her delegate group had rich conversations and they all agreed that they would love to see more racial equity in food justice. “I would love to see more BIPOC people given the opportunity to attend and participate in Terra Madre. It was a wonderful experience and I hope to bring a team of Detroit talent back to the 2024 Terra Madre.” stated Erin. She is happy with her experience and glad that she was able to represent Detroit and women of color. This was her full-circle moment where her passion for food led her to continue her purpose in food justice as she plans to keep moving forward towards better food and farming for all.