Written by Amelia Keleher (SFYN USA Communications Team)
“When I was very little, I loved chocolate.” Elizabeth began. “And when you’re like six years old, and you find out that chocolate comes from a plant… It sort of made something click in my head. I was like ‘Oh my God, everything I love comes from plants!’ That really sparked my interest in food and where it comes from.”
After graduating from the University of Chicago in 2017, Elizabeth Quintero worked as a youth educator with Edible Schoolyard NYC. She is currently a Program Associate at Stone Barns Center, a regenerative, educational farm located in Tarrytown, New York. This fall, she will pursue a master’s degree in landscape architecture at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design.
Rainbow Chard & Edible Education
It was at the University of Chicago that Elizabeth began learning about the U.S. food system and the harm that it was (and still is) causing to the environment and to people. Upon graduation, Elizabeth wanted to work with food-insecure communities, which led her to pursue a position as a FoodCorps service member. The national non-profit seeks to “[connect] kids to healthy food in school.” Elizabeth worked with Edible Schoolyard NYC, an organization that “supports edible education for every child in New York City.” She taught primarily Black and Hispanic youth in the Bronx about gardening and food and made a strong effort to incorporate each child’s culture — such as the foods they ate at home — into her lesson plans. “Once you get kids talking, they realize that food is such a cultural thing,” Elizabeth said. “It was just really amazing to learn about these recipes that I had never heard of and just understand how important food is to all of these students.”
As part of her curriculum, Elizabeth worked with the children to build garden beds. The kids chose what they wanted to grow based on what they enjoyed cooking. They planted a pizza garden (with tomatoes and basil) and a salsa garden (with tomatoes, jalapeños, and cilantro). “It sparked their excitement so much. There were fifth graders who just wanted to eat rainbow chard straight out of the garden,” Elizabeth said, laughing at the memory.
Many of the students didn’t speak any English. Despite the language barrier, they understood what food was and how to cook it. According to Elizabeth, “having a garden onsite does wonders, especially for kids who are in classrooms all day long and have all this energy. And teachers are so grateful to have a place to take their students. They understand that kids need to be outdoors and doing things with their hands.”
Elizabeth also pointed out that many kids depend on their school for food –– sometimes it’s the only place they’re guaranteed a meal — and when youth have the chance to grow their own food, they gain autonomy over their own nutrition. “Food should be healthy and nutritious, not just filling,” Elizabeth emphasized.
Stone Barns: Leaders in Innovation
Elizabeth currently works at Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture. The educational farm is directly associated with Blue Hill at Stone Barns, which is considered by many to be one of the best restaurants in America and received the James Beard Outstanding Restaurant Award in 2015. Elizabeth was first drawn to Stone Barns because of the center’s focus on preserving heirloom foods, flavor and what Elizabeth referred to as “the essence of food.” Elizabeth first began working there as a camp counselor. Nearly five years later, she still considers Stone Barns to be “leaders in innovation. The farm is this truly holistic place where everything has a purpose. Everything that’s grown not only helps the soil, it’s also delicious.”
As a program associate working primarily with adults, Elizabeth said the conversations look quite different than the ones she had as a youth educator. “With young kids, there’s a lot of optimism and personal engagement with what you’re doing. With adults, there’s just a broader sense of responsibility for the land and the environment, because they’ve had the chance to see the consequences of climate change and everything that’s happening.”
Elizabeth does a lot of storytelling during her tours to convey the richness of the land at Stone Barns and how their model is both regenerative and holistically integrated with the surrounding ecosystems. Just as her youth audience would get excited by rainbow chard, Elizabeth’s adult audience loves engaging with the chefs and farmers as they observe different methods of food preservation and preparation.
“It’s really amazing to see the relationship between Stone Barns the farm, Blue Hill the restaurant and Dan Barber the chef,” Elizabeth said. If the soil needs nitrogen, the farmers will plant a pea crop, or buckwheat as a cover crop, and Dan finds a way to incorporate these foods into his menus.
“The farm is this truly holistic place where everything has a purpose. Everything that’s grown not only helps the soil, it’s also delicious.”
The small but deliciously sweet Honeynut squash is one example of the constant innovation and hard work that takes place on the farm. The squash was born from a collaboration between Dan Barber, award-winning chef and co-owner of Blue Hill, and Michael Mazourek, associate professor at Cornell University, and can now be found at Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and farmers markets across the country. “[Stone Barns] truly is a laboratory for creativity and experimentation. It’s just so amazing to see scientists and farmers and people who visit the farm, working together to create a landscape that is so healthy and so bountiful,” Elizabeth said.
Kale, Affluence & White Privilege
When Elizabeth first started teaching youth about kale, one of her students exclaimed: “Kale is such a white person’s food!” Raj Patel made a similar comment in a recent Civil Eats article: “the legacy of settler colonialism … lets some folk obsess over kale while those harvesting it can’t afford to buy it.” Elizabeth recognizes the accuracy of these observations and acknowledges that white people have become incredibly obsessed with “healthy food.” “I think the same can be said for [Blue Hill] sometimes, where the food they make is really catered to a white perspective and there isn’t a lot of history behind it.” Not only does the Blue Hill restaurant cater to very affluent (and mostly white) people who can afford $350 meals, the twenty-course meal presentation can also last five hours. In short, the dining experience is neither casual and accessible nor affordable for the average person.
Yes, Stone Barns is expensive. Yet Elizabeth pointed out that the profit generated by the restaurant enables them to pay their farmers a living wage while also supporting educational programs for youth in New York City. Elizabeth also said that Dan Barber is beginning to come to terms with his white, male privilege. He recently founded the Kitchen Farming Project, then handed the initiative over to Amber Tamm, a young, Black, female farmer from New York City. Barber has also been reaching out to more farmers of color, and especially women. “It’s a work in progress. And there’s always work to be done,” Elizabeth said.
Soil = Living History
“What I miss in the U.S. food movement is an urgent sense of history. History about the soil on which local food is grown. About the blood of first nations and slaves in that soil.”
— Raj Patel (writer, activist, academic)
One of Elizabeth’s pressing concerns with our food system is the degree of land devastation and soil destruction. She strongly believes that we need to be growing food that’s healthy for people and for an entire ecosystem. She greatly admires Blue Hill’s ability to do just that. “Finding a place that valued the soil over everything else, for me that was just such a profound moment,” she said. Yet given the emphasis that Stone Barns places on soil health –– on the restoration as well as the preservation of vital, living organisms –– the establishment falls rather short in acknowledging the history of the soil and the land that it farms. Blue Hill at Stone Barns aims to connect and reconnect people with the land, yet fails to provide important history and context about the land that their diners ingest and visit.
Waste, Hunger and Food Autonomy
In addition to keeping food out of the landfill and redirecting it to feed our hungry population, Elizabeth expressed that we need to prioritize supporting farmers. “The resources for farmers just aren’t there. You hear about, you know, farmers that have held onto properties for generations and then have one bad season and have to sell everything as collateral. It’s just really heartbreaking to learn that that’s how the system works,” she said. Hence, Elizabeth is in favor of greater government intervention, aid and a better Farm Bill.
In the past several months, Elizabeth has been compiling a database of farms in the Northeast. She’s been contacting these farms to let them know that Stone Barns is there to support them — and help sustain them — in these especially challenging times brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Elizabeth emphasized how important it is that people have autonomy over their food source (and over land) for our collective well-being as a society. “People really need green, healthy spaces. And if they see where their food is growing, they take even more ownership of their community,” she concluded.
When asked about food activists she admires or resources she recommends, Elizabeth immediately mentioned Leah Penniman, author of Farming While Black and founder of Soul Fire Farm. “She’s an amazing activist and public speaker and has been able to reach so many people and inspire them.” She also said she loves the podcast Gastropod, which covers food science and history. “Michael Pollan is also good to read. He’s a classic. And he’s actually friends with Dan Barber,” she added with a laugh.
- “Leaders of Color Discuss Structural Racism and White Privilege in the Food System” by The Civil Eats Editors
- ResourcED & The Kitchen Farming Project