Meet CUESA’s Director of Education Ave Lambert

May 24, 2019

CUESA is excited to welcome our new Director of Education, Ave Lambert.  Hailing from a farming family in the Capay Valley of California, Ave brings their diverse experiences from fields to kitchens to food justice nonprofits, including work as a private chef, sustainability consultant, and educator.

Most recently, Ave was the Program Director of Farming Hope, a nonprofit providing transitional employment and training in urban agriculture and culinary to unhoused and low-income people in our community. They are an elected member of the San Francisco Food Security Task Force, making recommendations to the Board of Supervisors and the Mayor about ending hunger and food insecurity in the city.

Ave is excited to bring fresh eyes to CUESA’s education programs, like Foodwise KidsFoodwise Teens, and our evening talks, to grow thriving communities through the power and joy of local food. We chatted with Ave about the intersection of food, education, and justice. Say hello to Ave at the CUESA Classroom on Saturdays!

Can you share a bit about how you got interested in food and farming?

Food has always been everything for me since I was about 12. As I was growing up, we would have tamale-making parties with my grandparents. We grew this heirloom sweet white corn in Southern California, but that wasn’t the norm. My dad was a rice farmer and was always in the field. I would say we ate a normal American diet, with lots of meat and potatoes. It was self-care and curiosity that propelled me to ask questions and want to learn to cook for myself.

Where did that journey take you in terms of a career path in food?

After living and cooking in Italy, I started working with great chefs in Seattle and San Francisco, and I moved up very quickly in the culinary world from garde manger to Michelin star. But it felt hollow, and there was something missing for me, so I went on a bit of a spiritual quest. I think my search for food was like a search for truth and belonging.

Looking for roots, I got into farming, which took me to Central America and Hawaii, and I became really interested in permaculture, Vandana Shiva, and seed sovereignty. I realized that I really was attracted to the social justice aspect of food, the idea that everybody should get to eat good, clean, and fair food. I used my thesis research to study removing barriers to access in food deserts. When I came back home to NorCal, I dove into social justice work, which broke open my food lens to make me more human-focused. I realized that’s where the education clicks for me, where you can see the whole picture. It’s not a food system in parts of a supply chain. It’s full circle; the complete opposite of industrial. It’s not theoretical, precious, or elitist. It’s about our human right to grow our food, to eat something delicious together,  to sit down and have a conversation with our neighbor, to break bread and connect.

What opportunities do you see in terms of strengthening the so-called “food movement”?

I think we have a great curious audience at the farmers market of people who are hungry for meaning and deliciousness, and there are so many juicy opportunities to educate. It’s literally ripe for the picking! But the opportunity, more broadly, is really for policy change. The only way we can get to that is with an educated electorate, so our job is really to be the bridge to urbanites. You can start to engage people in some of these deeper issues when you get them excited and around the table, and for me, food is the best way to do that. We all need to eat every day.

I think we’ve gotten sidetracked by the “Vote with your dollar” idea, which is not enough. It’s so much more than that. We can use the platform of the market as a call to action to bring people in and get them involved in supporting small family farmers. For me, CUESA stands for a place of  joy and abundance and connection, where we can have those conversations and send ripple effects out from there. Farmers can’t survive, and people are sick and disconnected. Food intersects all these ailments and mends them in a beautiful and meaningful way.

What aspects of food are you most passionate about, in terms of bringing people into that conversation?

We are natural creators. When people grow their own food—when they have that agency and ancestral knowledge—that is what being human is all about. Being close to the source of our food can help us make more responsible decisions because we can see the direct impact. There is something so human about that link between us and the soil and the food, which can help us create a sustainable food system. The more distance  between us and the land, the more devastation and destruction we get.

What really excites you about the platform of the farmers market as a place for education?

I’ve always seen CUESA as this beacon for interactions between farmers, the public, and chefs. In San Francisco, we have so many opportunities to connect sustainability and equity and justice through food. CUESA is a place to come see the magic happen.

That kind of community building is desperately needed especially in modern urban areas. People are isolated, distracted, detached, depressed, and lonely. Food is medicine, food builds community. I really see it as the antidote not only to our physical ailments but to our soul sickness.

Everyone needs a safe seat at the table, so we need to knock down the barriers and any elitism in the food movement. Delicious food should be egalitarian. It is for the people, by the people, and for everyone. When you have seeds in hand and access to land, you have complete sovereignty and freedom and can opt out of any system you don’t agree with. That’s revolutionary for me, and it’s a  right that belongs to all of us.

As a native Californian, I feel a personal duty, and I believe CUESA has a duty, to lead the food movement and innovate through education, access, and outreach for all people. The time is now; join us for joy and justice.

What are you looking forward to or excited about at the farmers market right now?

Summer is so special with stone fruit, watermelon, and heirlooms, but spring is actually my favorite. I’m absolutely in love with fiddlehead ferns, kohlrabi, every kind of sprout, asparagus, and peas. The rainbow and all the greens. And I just love edible flowers.

Learn more about CUESA’s education programs.