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Here at Krrb we love getting the opportunity to talk to creative, passionate people who are doing awesome things in our local communities. We had the pleasure of chatting with Julia Middleton, the Youth Food Justice Director for the Cypress Hills Local Development Corporation, about her high-impact work and how she has gotten to where she is today.
Tell us about yourself and what you do
I’m a born and bred Chicago girl but left the miserable winters behind for college in sunny SoCal where I studied urban agriculture and photography. After graduation, I moved to NYC to work for Slow Food USA, supporting their national youth programs. I spent two years admiring people who were getting their hands dirty—literally—with kids everyday so I left New York and returned to Chicago to apprentice with Growing Power. There I received intensive training on urban agriculture as I helped build a 2.5 acre farm on the far south side of Chicago. Those experiences prepared me for my current position as the Youth Food Justice Director for the Cypress Hills Local Development Corporation. As the Youth Food Justice Director, I have envisioned this initiative from the beginning; building the growing spaces, writing curriculum, teaching lessons, training staff and expanding from two gardens initially to four this season.
What is an average day at your job like?
During the growing season, I’m up early to water the plants and feed the chickens before the sun really starts to beat down on me, then around noon I meet up with a team of 25 Summer Youth Employment Participants, who are between 14-15 years old. These young people spend the summer doing job training through urban agriculture with me in the afternoon. Some days are spent pulling weeds or harvesting tomatoes and peppers, other days they’re learning how to write a resume and go on a job interview. At the end of the summer they host a garden BBQ for teens who have been employed in other positions throughout the community to share what they’ve learned.
What inspired you to do what you do today?
I grew up in the city proper, just like the kids I work with now, and although I had a token trip to the farm and regular visits to the farmers market during the growing season, I didn’t really understand where my food came from until I started studying it in college. As a student of environmental studies and anthropology, I realized that the place where people and nature come together most clearly, for me at least, is food. After taking an academic approach to urban agriculture, I became an advocate of farm to table education. I hope it doesn’t take the next generation as long as it took me to learn and enjoy, good, local, seasonal, fresh food in big city neighborhoods everywhere.
What’s the best part about your job?
Watching a kid eat something new for the first time and not find it as gross as they were anticipating. Turns out kale pesto is a big hit in Cypress Hills!
What’s your favorite thing that you’ve taught your students?
That all good food grows in some animal’s poop. The sugar in their candy comes from sugar cane that was probably grown in a field fertilized by some animal poop.
In your opinion what is the most important part of your job?
Providing opportunities for young people in big cities to learn that you don’t have to be a millionaire to eat something that tastes good and is good for the earth.
What is one thing you think everyone should keep in mind in terms of helping our environment?
That even one small change in your personal routine can make a big difference for the earth. My lunch, which I bring to work everyday, is often the starting point for conversations about growing and cooking new things and if enough people get inspired, demands on grocery stores and bodegas and farmers markets will change, that will impact farmers and thus the whole system changes.