Written by Amelia Keleher (SFYN USA Communications Team)
Sara Jean Whelan is a self-described “mission-driven activist and businesswoman.” She began farming at the age of eighteen and went on to co-found Three Chimney Farm when she was a senior at the University of Vermont. SJ is currently on Slow Food Youth Network’s Global Steering Committee, as well as being the co-chair of Slow Food Vermont and a board leader for Slow Food Youth Network (SFYN) USA. She plans to pursue her passion for food access and food sovereignty through a Ph.D. in food policy.
SJ became fascinated with the environment in high school and set out to pursue a major in environmental studies in college. However, she soon felt overwhelmed by what she called the “climate change gloom and doom.” When she happened across the Slow Food club at a UVM activities fair, she thought to herself: “I like good food. I think it’s important,” and decided to sign up. “After my first meeting, I was like boom, hooked, loved it,” she said. That was when she realized that the food system is what ties everything together. Whelan wanted to do something impactful. She recognized that “everyone needs to eat, it’s a basic human right, or at least it should be.” The combination of the significant contribution of agricultural emissions to greenhouse gases, and the way that Slow Food approaches the food system through a lens of joy “totally sold me,” Whelan said.
“Veggies À La Carte”
Three Chimney Farm cultivates over 100 varieties on half an acre of their seven-acre property. The farm is a beautiful example of regenerative agriculture, utilizing the root systems of over 200 fruit and nut trees to help prevent erosion and alter the flow of water. “We didn’t want to be just another CSA (Community Supported Agriculture),” SJ said, so she and her business partner created an e-commerce site. Customers can purchase veggies online on a weekly basis, which offers increased flexibility and addresses some of the cost barriers of paying an upfront seasonal fee that most CSA’s charge. For example, people can opt-out of the subscription if they’re going on vacation. Three Chimney Farm currently has fifty subscribers and a waiting list of people hoping to subscribe to its “veggies à la carte” model.
When asked what she attributes to the farm’s success, SJ said, “We’ve done a good job creating a brand identity for ourselves.” In addition to their online presence, Three Chimney Farm has partnered with local breweries where customers can pick up their veggies, enjoy a fresh brew, and meet up with a friend, all in one stop. How cool is that?
Serving Her Community
With COVID-19, “it’s [become] apparent how messed up our food system is and the disparities [that exist],” SJ said. Since beginning to farm, SJ has been active in addressing food and housing insecurity in her community through her work with Pathways Vermont, a non-profit ‘housing-first’ program that believes in securing housing for the homeless before addressing mental health issues, substance abuse, and other issues. Donating to the Pathways Community Center is written into Three Chimney’s business plan. “I started the position with the hopes of better understanding the dynamics of food access and supporting folks who struggle with hunger and food insecurity,” she said. SJ has been going to the food shelf every ten or so days to deliver food and facilitate access to EBT benefits. She also just secured garden plots for some of the Center’s clients so that they can grow their own food this summer.
Vision for SFYN
As a farmer and food activist, SJ brings a unique understanding of both the hands-on producer experience and the desires of Slow Food consumers to the mission of Slow Food Youth Network USA. SJ believes that Slow Food is becoming a movement that is truly inclusive and seeking to do all the good work that it has intended to do from the start, such as securing farmers’ rights and addressing food insecurity. Meanwhile, Slow Food Youth Network has shown how capable youth are of “revamping the movement, making it their own and making it how it should be. “It’s been absolutely inspiring and just amazing to see,” SJ said.
World Disco Soup Day
Each year, SFYN leaders organize Disco Soup events around the world in order to raise awareness about food waste and climate change. This year, SJ embraced the challenge of organizing a virtual Disco Soup event for her community in Vermont.
“It looked a lot different than it has in the past,” she said. Nevertheless, it was a lot of fun and a great success. In all, nearly 45 people participated in Vermont’s Disco Soup Day, coming together (virtually, of course) to cook, dance and have fun. Even people as far as California joined in. SJ also collaborated with Pathways Vermont to deliver over 100 meals to around 70 folks who typically rely on the food shelf.
For other SFYN leaders interested in organizing a Disco Soup Day event, SJ said: “There are just a few key ingredients. First, organize in a way that you can collect food that is typically wasted.” This includes ingredients such as beet tops and bruised produce. “Second, you gotta get some people, and you gotta have fun and play some good music,” she continued. According to SJ, WDSD is “a quintessential event for SFYN because it’s about fighting problems in our food system through a lens of joy.”
“If you can’t gather in person, you can still host a virtual dance party,” SJ said. “You don’t have to do the extra piece of charitable work, but there are always food banks and pantries and other local organizations that can use support.”
Hope for the Future
SJ said she’s excited to see how grassroots movements are encouraging folks in her community to come together in these strange times, from donating meals to their neighbors, to planting victory gardens, to supporting local farmers. When asked what gives her hope for the future, SJ said: “It’s hard to stop and think and appreciate all these little things sometimes, but when you sort of add them up as a whole it’s pretty inspiring to see people come together, go back to their roots, and join hands.” SJ said. “While staying six feet apart!” she quickly added with a smile.