Long Tran, MFC Community and Family Engagement Intern
Environmental Studies major at Macalester College

These past few months, I have been working for Midwest Food Connection (MFC) as the Family and Community Engagement intern, which involved me in finding ways to inform parents and community members about MFC’s work and their mission. Some of my work included hosting a lentil making activity for an opening event at the Bell Museum, helping kids make omelets in mugs at Obama Elementary, starting the process of building an indoor aquaponic garden at Bruce Vento Elementary, and tabling at Mississippi Market. I received a lot of positive feedback from people saying that they really liked the activities or the recipes and they would probably make it at home, so I believe that I have effectively informed parents about what their kids are learning in the classroom and how they can compliment that using our activities or recipes at home. I felt that I had fulfilled my role as the Family and Community Engagement intern; however, engaging members from the community doesn’t mean that I’m engaging the community itself. Although these families may try out these new recipes at home and may end up eating healthier as a result, that would probably be the extent of most of their involvement in the food movement.

The more I think about the results of my work, the more I think of ways it could’ve been done differently. I’ve shown people I interacted with how to live better by developing healthy eating habits and eating better food, but I haven’t shown them how to use food to connect to others within their communities. We live in a society where we are encouraged to live as individuals instead of a collective. We see problems in society and think we can fix them ourselves through individual actions. Perhaps we should think of all of our lives as a big web of life where problems in society all affect us to a degree. This also means that each of us contributes to the strength and the resiliency of this web, as long as we realize we are all connected.

When I first proposed to build an aquaponic garden at Bruce Vento Elementary, I wanted it to serve as a place where kids can learn about various concepts of biology, such as nutrient cycling, the nitrogen cycle, ecosystem interactions, and plant physiology. In my mind, the garden would not only serve as a learning tool for the students and get them excited about biology, but would also provide food for the school and parents who may not be able to afford fresh local produce. However, I don’t think I’ve taken full advantage of the space. I haven’t given the people who will use the space a reason for them to feel connected to it. They will probably just view it as something that is given to them by the school.

During one of our staff meetings, Molly introduced me to the Food is Free Project after we were discussing the implications of going into farming. The Food is Free Project is a community organization in Austin, Texas that shares resources about low maintenance gardening techniques to inspire people to start their own in their front yard. These gardens connect people with their neighbors through sharing produce from their own gardens. I was really inspired by this work because it resonated with my belief that we shouldn’t place all of the burden of food production on farmers and that everyone should have access to healthy and fresh produce regardless of their economic or social status. The words “food is free” also questions the idea of food having a cost in the first place. Who reserves the right to put a price on food when it is one of the most basic necessities? The Food is Free Project has motivated me to change my project into something that is more inclusive of the larger community. So instead of me choosing which vegetables and herbs I think people might want, I could let people choose their own, with the condition that they must be willing to share it with others. I hope that after contributing their thoughts and ideas, people will gain a sense of belonging to the space and feel like they are part of something bigger.

Transforming a space into something more inclusive and welcoming to the community at large is my definition of community engagement. I chose to do it through the lens of food. Food is something that all of us have in common and it helps people come together despite their differences. What is your definition of community engagement?