Written by Amelia Keleher (SFYN USA Communications Team)
“When I learned that the earth was hurting, in second grade, I panicked,” Isa said. At the time, she wanted to take care of the environment but didn’t know how. Now that she’s older, Isa has learned that by taking care of herself, she can take care of Mother Earth. “Everyone can and should feel a connection to the Earth.”
Isa Moise is a farmer activist who believes that food has the power to heal ourselves and to heal Mother Earth. She graduated with degrees in Environmental Studies and Politics from Bates College in Lewiston, Maine in May 2019. While at Bates, Isa co-managed the Bates Garden in its first-ever growing season. Since then, she’s worked at Jolo’s Kitchen, her dad’s vegan restaurant and juice bar in New Rochelle, NY, and at Oko Farms, an urban aquaponics farm in Brooklyn, NY. Isa is currently working as a seasonal Urban Farmer and Educator at Randall’s Island Park Alliance in New York City.
Food Access & Education
“As a farmer, I know for a fact that the issue is not that there isn’t enough food to go around,” Isa said. Instead, she said that the real issues are a lack of time, lack of connection, and lack of education. For example, farmers aren’t always able to harvest all of their produce before a frost and sometimes don’t know which consumers to direct their produce to. Meanwhile, those receiving the food don’t always know what to do with it. Access is one thing, but a lot of people don’t necessarily know what to do with vegetables like kohlrabi or squash. “People are so disconnected but also so connected at the same time. We need to be more responsible,” Isa said.
At its core, Randall’s Urban Farm is an educational space. Most of the produce the farm grows goes towards educational Walking, Talking, and Tasting Tours for elementary school students. However, the farm also donates a significant portion of their harvest to NYC food pantries and other non-profits, along with info and recipe sheets to help address the issue of education around food and to prevent unknown items from going to waste.
As a result of the coronavirus pandemic, Isa has been spending more time working from home to develop a curriculum that includes educational videos, worksheets, and updates of what’s going on at the farm. On May 19, she participated in the first harvest of the year, which consisted of herbs, greens, and some of their winter crops.
Food as Medicine
Isa believes that food should be used for health. “Food is a very good way to heal yourself and should be the primary way to heal yourself,” Isa said. “Western medicine exists for a reason, but it should be used as a last resort,” she added.
Isa described her father’s restaurant, Jolo’s Kitchen, as a wellness center where community members come to share their health conditions and to heal themselves through food but she is critical of the restaurant industry and of the many restaurants that have neglected their responsibilities as caretakers. She believes they need to start seeing themselves as wellness-centers devoted to the health of their customers and the health of the earth. “I want healthier foods—foods that are good for you and good for the environment—to be more accessible,” Isa said. She also referenced an article in the New Yorker, “The Case for Letting the Restaurant Industry Die,” in which writer, cook, and artist Tunde Wey argues that restaurants facilitate waste, segregation, and gentrification. “Restaurants just should do better,” Isa said.
Farming, Policy and Change
“Farming takes a very deep understanding of Mother Earth and all the interconnected systems. The interactions that you’re making in the earth right now, they matter,” Isa said. She continued: “As a farmer, I have never seen a not-struggling farmer. And to me, that’s just the craziest thing because I know the land is the richest thing on Earth. So I’m just kind of like: ‘How is it that we have all these people who know how to interact with the Earth in a sustainable and respectful and nourishing way?’ It just baffles me, ‘cause our food system is such an important stage in [cultivating] worldwide sustainability.”
Isa said that her former boss, Yemi Amu (Founder and Director of Oko Farms) would often tell enthusiastic visitors who came to her aquaponics farm: “If you want to make change, don’t become a farmer. Become a lawyer or policymaker. “We need people who understand how food should be grown; who fight for and determine policies that support a sustainable food system.”
Isa went on to discuss GreenThumb, a program run by the NYC Parks Department that gives out free plots of land for people to farm and garden. While Isa was working at Oko Farms, the landowner of community gardens throughout NYC changed their rules and regulations so that anyone operating out of those plots of land can only generate revenue by selling their produce. That means income can no longer be generated from educational tours or workshops. “This makes no sense because food can’t be expensive,” she said. She went on to say: “Basically, there were people at a table that made a decision that affected so many other people, and those people weren’t able to voice their opinion.” As Yemi Amu pointed out, “this strips autonomy from community gardens to determine how to keep their spaces financially viable.” (To watch a short video on the future of community gardens in NYC featuring Oko Farms and Isa in her red Bates sweatshirt, click here.)
Isa has decided to take a break from farming but pointed out: “You can always come back, once you have the experience and the knowledge. And the community, that’s essential.” She is currently applying to various food-related programs, including a program in Italy and a scholarship on storytelling, agriculture, and cooking. Isa also wants to start studying for the LSAT to pursue a career that gives her more power to enact change. In November, Isa plans to take a road trip to search for farmland. She’s been using Aerial America, which provides aerial maps and videos of the U.S, to help plan her route. Isa hopes to have her own land in five years. “2025 is going to be my personal graduation date,” she said and laughed.
“My overall goal is self-resilience,” Isa said. “Once I can feed myself, I can do anything. But first, I’m going to need land and money.” In other words, one of her biggest takeaways from Cornell University’s online Farm Hub class is that you shouldn’t quit your day job when you start a farm.
After acknowledging that you can never stop learning and that change is inevitable, Isa said: “I’m excited for me, for the vision I have for myself and that I’m committed to pursuing.” She concluded by saying: “Right now we’re in this massive change and this pandemic is bringing a lot to the forefront. I’m excited for the change that I want to bring.”
Want to hear more from Isa? Check out her “Farm Nerd Stories” episodes on youtube!