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Stories & Inspiration

Sharing stories and inspiration about our food system work helps us to connect with one another, find greater empathy and compassion, and provides the motivation to continue on with our work. We invite you to share your stories and inspirations with us for consideration in our feature on this page! Please share your story with us!

Network Profile: Helen Costello

Helen CostelloHelen “HC” Costello is the Program Manager at the New Hampshire Food Bank, a distributor and supplier to hunger relief agencies serving food insecure community members. In 2014, the New Hampshire Food Bank distributed over 11 million pounds of non-perishable food items, fresh produce, and meats to more than 400 non-profit food agencies in all corners of that state. HC leads the Recipe for Success Department which consists of five programs: culinary job training, Cooking Matters, a production garden, SNAP Outreach and the NH Nutrition Incentives Network. In addition to her work at the Food Bank, HC is passionate about nutrition and wellness. A Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, HC owned a private agriculture, food and nutrition consulting business for over 10 years prior to joining the Food Bank.

What inspires you in your work? 

I run several programs where we work directly with people who are food insecure. We can see direct impact from our work, both at the individual level and on a statewide scale, and that inspires me everyday.

What keeps you up at night?

I feel really good about what we do here. I sleep well because of the work that we do. What keeps me up is that there is so much more to do, and such little resources to do it. A lot of us that are working hard at it don’t have enough resources to reach everyone we would like to. Program work relies on a lot of resources and a lot of volunteer and in-kind work. Congress expects charities to pick up more than their share of the load. Funding cuts and overbearing regulation create barriers to accessibility of the federal nutrition assistance programs. We need stronger advocacy and public policy that will address food insecurity.

What do you see as your personal role in regional food system transformation?

I see my role as an advocate for food and economic justice for vulnerable populations, but not limited to food and nutrition. Advocacy at the local, state, and national levels. We need to ensure that we’re reaching these populations to provide opportunities at the local and statewide levels.

New Lands in Massachusetts: Jhuma & Tila

Food is the great uniter, capable of permeating and perpetuating culture and tradition. These characteristics are distinct at New Lands Farm, a program of Ascentria Care Alliance located on two community farms in Central and Western Massachusetts. The program provides training and technical assistance to new Americans in producing and selling diverse and ethnic vegetables at local farmers markets, grocery stores, and through a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. The refugee and immigrant farmers are provided with the tools and resources they need to become providers for their families, while participating in activities familiar to them from their country of origin, wherever that may be.

Farmers from Bhutan, Burundi, Congo, Kenya, Somalia, Tanzania, and Vietnam, speaking some 16 different languages, collaborate and communicate to ultimately create this community. They exchange advice on how best to keep the deer and rabbits away. They gift and trade vegetables native to their home countries, such as mchicha and daikon radishes, with each other. They even help to serve as translators for one another. As unique as all the farmers are, they share a commonality: their love for farming.

Jhuma in the fieldJhuma came to West Springfield in 2009, immigrating from a refugee camp in eastern Nepal. She lives with her husband, three children, mother-in-law, and sister-in-law. This is Jhuma's fifth year with New Lands Farm, and she is growing many vegetables for her family to eat and to sell at the market. She especially enjoys growing mustard greens and hot peppers, traditional ingredients in Bhutanese cooking.

What was life like in Bhutan?

We had a beautiful house and a lot of land. We were farmers and used to grow a lot of crops. After we harvested them, we kept half at home and then took half to market and sold them, using that money to buy sugar, salt, clothes, and other things we needed for our everyday life.

How is farming different in Massachusetts compared to where you farmed in Bhutan?

I learned to farm from my parents and older siblings, as well as from the people from my community. We grew rice, wheat, corn, mustard, barley, oats, potatoes, broccoli, cabbage, and so on.  In Bhutan, we never used tractors for plowing, we used oxen. We then used to put cow's and buffalo's dung in our farm as fertilizer.

Why did you get involved in New Lands Farm?

I have learned so many things from this program. I never thought that I would grow my own vegetables, sell them, and make money from them. I don't have that much land but I still grow enough vegetables for my family and enough to sell to market, too. It is such a nice experience and I enjoy working with people from many different countries.

Tila tending his plantsLike Jhuma, Tila is thriving at New Lands Farms, proving to be a talented farmer with a passion for growing crops. Tila grew up in Bhutan, eventually immigrating to Massachusetts in March of 2011. He lives with his wife and has children who love when he brings home fresh vegetables.

How did you learn to farm?

I learned from my parents and my grandparents. I was 11 years old when I started. I used to help at the farm with my parents. In Bhutan we plowed the land with oxen. I started plowing the land with oxen when I was 16. I had to do it. I needed to make land and I had no other option on my family’s plot.

What was life like in the refugee camp?

I left Bhutan for a refugee camp in Nepal when I was 45 years old. I had a very small hut and I had to stay in a very small space. Some of us had many family members. When rain and wind came we had problems--the roof came off our house. The children went to school and the adults left to work, mostly women took care of the children. We got food and vegetables but there wasn’t enough so we had to go outside to grow food for our family. There was a Nepalese village outside of the refugee camp that we would go to because we spoke the same language as the villagers. I would ask the villagers if they needed help with farming. I helped with their land so I could use some of their land to grow vegetables for my family. We didn’t get the same vegetables in the camp that we were used to eating so that is why we would go outside of the camp to grow our own.

What are you excited about for the future?

I don’t have another job. I want to continue farming as long as I’m able to. I love farming because I did the same thing in my country. I love bringing green vegetables home for my family. This is my side income. My children say I’m too old to go to the farm but I just want to grow vegetables. I’m used to it. It’s what I did In Bhutan. I give many vegetables to the CSA. I have some good, fresh vegetables. Buy vegetables from me so I will be happy!

New Lands Farm empowers Jhuma, Tila, and many others to honor their food traditions, earn supplemental income, and contribute in a meaningful way to their new community through their production and sale of local, sustainably grown produce. New Lands Farm has become a strong, multi-cultural community of farmers invested in their passion for farming. This passion has travelled with them from their native countries, to refugee camps, and now to their homes in Massachusetts.

For further information about Ascentria’s New Lands Farm program, please visit www.newlandsfarm.org. This story was written by Stephanie Hua, the 2015 Farm Intern at New Lands Farm.

Sandra Snyder: Vermont Food Systems Tour

Sandy Photo credit: Chantal MullenSandra Snyder is a home economist with experience in the fashion and home fashion industry. Presently, she calls Vermont home, where she lives a non-electric, non-petroleum lifestyle. At an age of 75 years, Sandra carries with her immense wisdom on healing people through the power of nutritious and healthy foods.

Why did you join the Vermont Food System Tour?

I graduated from Drexel (then an Institute of Technology) back in 1962 and recently decided to update my nutrition credentials. When I saw the announcement about the Vermont Food Study Tour in the paper, I just knew I had to go.

Suddenly I was off to visit seven colleges in 21 days (all around food, with soil as a focus). The first thing I did with a small inheritance was to buy $1,000 worth of books from the alternative soil people, Acres USA. Now I would get my formal education around the issue. I was surprised, honored, and felt a bit overwhelmed when our first stop wasn't a college, but the Secretary of Agriculture's office where we were briefed on upcoming changes on agriculture policy in Vermont. We also visited Sustainable Jobs and Rural Development. What responsibility they put on our shoulders with the information they shared with us.

What was your favorite experience from the Tour?

Along the way people would say, "What has been the most exciting thing to date?" I would say every minute has been exciting. There were so many extra places I didn't know we would be going, like school gardens, Merck Farm and Forest, and Cloud Farm... that's right, an online farm! Summer Study Tour group Photo credit: Ivers

What are your most urgent concerns or upcoming action opportunities?

What I want to do is call attention to the need for real, whole food for human wellness, especially around the issue of autism. We need a home where families with autistic members can come to spend a couple of weeks and cook each of their meals with supervision around their personal food choices.  After many years of research there really are some good and positive food guidelines out there for the autistic individuals. Some foods are more nourishing than others and some are recognized health problems.

Contact me at s.snyderwestfield@gmail.com with your ideas and or needs around this issue. We are just getting started and do not have a formal name at this time. But this is a topic that has been entered into our Rural Development hearing because so much money is spent just sustaining people, rather than moving towards healing people.

A Fresh Start in New Hampshire: Isho Mahamed & Fatuma Yussuf

Isho and Fatuma at their farm standFresh Start Farms is a collective of refugee and immigrant farmers participating in the New American Sustainable Agriculture Project (NASAP). A project of the Organization for Refugee and Immigrant Success (ORIS), the purpose of the program is two-fold: help new immigrants establish a secure food source and a sustainable small business. 

Currently, the farm is a collective of 24 immigrant and refugee farmers, representing Somali-Bantu, Bhutanese, Burundi, and Congolese communities. NASAP provides technical assistance as well as growing space on its seven-acre site in Dunbarton, New Hampshire, with nine out of 24 farmers growing on a commercial scale.

Part of the collective is the mother-daughter duo of Fatuma and Isho. The two fled their homeland, Somalia, in the early 1990s and immigrated to the United States in 2004 from a refugee camp in Kenya. Isho has been involved in NASAP since 2007. Fatuma went through NASAP’s new farmer trainings this winter and started farming this spring.

The two have separate plots in Dunbarton. Isho’s plot is around a quarter of an acre and Fatuma’s is around an eighth of an acre. On their land, the farmers grow an array of vegetables, including tomatoes, peppers, beans, basil, and squash. Isho is drawn to farming because of her love for fresh and healthy food. She also enjoys how growing her own food gives her the opportunity to have a source of income.

The mother, Fatuma, was a farmer in her native land of Somalia, growing her own fruits and vegetables, both for subsistence and sale. Here in the States, Fatuma teaches her daughter farming and production, while Isho teaches her mother the business aspects of farming. Both have filled in the gaps in each other’s knowledge base, while NASAP has developed and sharpened both of their skill sets. Together, the warm and amiable pair has a sustainable business model on their hands. Isho and Fatuma sell their produce through Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) memberships as well as weekly farmers markets in the region.

When asked about the difference between farming in the States and farming in Somalia, Fatuma says farming in Somalia is labor-intensive. Without irrigation and technology, farming in Somalia is more taxing. Additionally, there are more market channels for their produce in the States. In Somalia, Fatuma sold the produce at a market once a month. Here, the family has numerous outlets, including a CSA and weekly markets, which allows them to generate a greater revenue stream.

As the nation’s demographics become increasingly diverse, this change is reflected in the agricultural sector. Isho and Fatuma are part of a collective of new American farmers who are adding diversity and inspiration to a growing and vibrant occupation.

Chantal Mullen: Vermont Food Systems Tour

Chantal on skid steerChantal Mullen is originally from New Hampshire but now calls Virginia home. Chantal has a Certificate in Graphic Communications, an Associate’s Degree in Horticulture Technologies from Forsyth Technical Community College, a Bachelor’s Degree in Agriculture Education. Chantal is also involved in a community initiative called SEED2SEED. Inspired by the Vermont Food Systems Study Tour, a three-week immersive experience into the Vermont food system, she participated in this summer, Chantal is starting her Master’s Degree in Sustainable Food Systems at Green Mountain College.

Why do you do what you do?

I have been growing things since I was about eight years old and to this day find the potential one tiny seed has fascinating. Through my studies in Horticulture and Soil Science, I discovered a passion for sharing what I learned. That discovery lead me to pursue Agriculture Education at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical University, which takes what I previously learned in the Horticulture Technologies program and teaches me to effectively share with others.

I have been a single mom in the past; trying to juggle multiple jobs, college, church, and spending time with my son. I know the realities of time constraints, budgets, and having to choose between making sure we are full or being able to cook nutritious food that’s actually good for us. This is where my life experiences and my education have come together in a meaningful way for me. Helping other people in these same situations find solutions to this problem is something that is on my heart.

Why did you join the Vermont Food System Tour?

I was planning on applying to Virginia Tech for a degree in Crop Science but had mixed feelings about where I would possibly end up with that degree. I was concerned with genetically modified plants and I personally don’t think God intended for us to change what He made. I had prayed about my reservations in this area and then I received an interesting email about a three-week tour of Vermont. I was intrigued with the idea of Food Systems and my background in agriculture played a role. After checking into the tour further, I realized that this was a one of a kind opportunity to experience agriculture in a larger view. 

During the tour, we would be able to hear from almost all parts of the Food Systems and learn how they are all connected and affect each other. Some of the areas covered that were most appealing to me were laws, policy, government, relationships, food justice, and rights. Participation in the University of Vermont Food Summit was another plus on the list of reasons to join the tour. Hands-on experience is important to me to fully understand how things work and that is what the tour is all about. From being on this tour I gained clarification on what I wanted to do and how I could make that happen.

What was your favorite experience from the Tour?

My favorite experience from the tour was at Vermont Tech. They have a high focus on experiential learning. I got to work a skid steer to load shavings for animals. I was instructed on all the details of milking cows and then was able to milk the cows myself. Cows have personalities and some like to test your patience!

Later on, I did morning chores. I went to the pasture where I received an unexpected zap to my hand, which prompted a lesson in types of fencing. We fed the cows and learned how, what, and why they are fed. It was a great feeling to be walking in the middle of a herd of cows.

We then jumped into the small utility vehicle and rode to another pasture on campus where some mischievous teenage cows had somehow bailed the pasture. I experienced rounding cows and found out that I was not so good at it. The ground was very wet and laden with holes from hoofs. By 6:30 AM I was drenched up to my thighs in water, mud, and…other things. But I gained such an incredible amount of firsthand experience that I didn’t mind at all.

How can the FSNE Network help you with your upcoming action opportunities?

While a sustainable urban education farm is my long-term goal, I want to be able to help people now on a smaller scale. This is how SEED2SEED was created. SEED2SEED is an outreach group that meets every Monday night. Experience in gardening is not necessary, just willing hands to serve each other and the community. We plan out and tend to a community garden and then serve the community with the harvest that God provides. 

Our motto is “We Plant In SOIL”. Sowing Opportunity; Improving Lives. This means we not only look for opportunities to sow into the ground but in to each other’s lives. We improve lives though personal experiences in and around the garden as well as through the use of the harvest for those in need. We have a Facebook page where you can see our progress in the garden and we communicate about our meetings for each week. 

Right now, we are looking for groups to partner with us to serve a local population (Roanoke, VA). We hope to spread awareness of what we are doing. Gaining connections and partners is what will allow us to be the most effective with our time and resources. We seek like-minded individuals who place high priority on values of a community helping each other, sustainable gardening, and sharing God’s love through this outreach.

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