Meet Leigh, CUESA's New Director of Education

April 13, 2018

CUESA is excited to welcome our new Director of Education, Leigh Gaymon-Jones. With a background in education, urban farming, and the arts, Leigh brings deep, interdisciplinary knowledge to CUESA’s education programs, which include our Foodwise Kids cooking classes, Schoolyard to Market youth development program, evening food talks, and other learning experiences that connect urban eaters of all ages with our local food shed.

We chatted with Leigh to hear more about what inspires her work in food and what she’s looking forward to in her work at CUESA. Look for Leigh at our farmers markets and say hello!

Tell us a bit about your path to working in food and agriculture.

I first came to food and farming through my training in dance and the arts. I happened to be taking a summer dance intensive that had an emphasis on social change, specifically through questions of food access, and I got introduced to some of the food thinkers of the time. I got really excited about what was happening in the food world, and the cultural and political implications it had.

I began volunteering on farms and participating in different food events in Austin, with an interest in sustainable agriculture and food justice. That led me to work in an organization called Urban Roots, a youth development organization centered around access to healthy food, and teaching sustainable ag and entrepreneurial skills to teens. More recently, I finished at the UC Santa Cruz Farm & Garden Program, where I learned practical hands-on skills in growing food and trained apprentices, and then went on to be the interim farm manager and Alemany Farm in San Francisco

What sort of formative experiences with food did you have growing up? 

My mom had a strong health perspective and cooked about 99 percent of our meals from scratch. If I wanted anything that wasn’t really nutritious, then I had to buy it with my own money. That was her policy. So I grew up feeling that it was normal to have a homemade, vegetable-rich diet. I didn’t think about that as anything interesting until I came back to looking at food as an adult. When I started working with young folks at Urban Roots, I began thinking more critically about how the food experiences of our youth form the foundation of our relationships to food and health for the rest of our lives.

How has your work in education informed your work in food?

I worked as an instructional aid and a charter school in Atlanta for two years, where everything was experiential learning. That translated a few years later when I was doing farm-based education at Urban Roots. Both of those experiences really shaped how I think about engaging people in learning experiences, in terms of seeing everyone as a learner and everyone as an expert, especially when it comes to food. We all eat, and we all have a certain expertise that we bring from our food traditions and food culture.

What role does education play in a healthy food system? Why is there a need for it?

We need to know our food. We need to know where it comes from, what it does for our bodies, and also how it shapes policy, impacts culture, and binds us together. Education is an ongoing process that surrounds and engages us, whether we’re paying attention to it or not. We must pay attention so that we are well-informed as we construct a world in which we want live and in which we can thrive. Historically, when we haven’t paid attention, our national physical health has suffered, our global environmental health has suffered, and we have drifted from the cultural core that food has served humans for centuries.  

In order for us all, to reengage long standing food wisdom, we need spaces that reconnect us with our cultural food heritage, the nutritional value of our food, and the creativity of preparing that food. This is particularly true for those of us living in urban centers. Food is central to community, to human life, to people gathering and connections being made, so having thoughtful and meaningful ways to build those connections is essential. The educational platform that CUESA offers is a dynamic and powerful means of deepening and expanding those connections.

In terms of the pushing the food movement forward, what are some issues you’re most passionate about that we need to address?

Two areas that I think are most pressing at this moment are sustainability and inclusivity. Climate change is a significant reality. Our food system has a big impact on climate change, and it also has the potential to have positive impacts through innovative farming techniques and shifts in how we think about purchasing and preparing our food. In terms of inclusivity, we need to think globally. The world’s growers are predominantly people of color, and they’re predominantly women. In the US, we need to honor and reflect that reality, in how we build the food movement, what foods we celebrate, and what growers and sellers we elevate. There are a lot of people at the proverbial table, but we don’t always pay attention to who they are. As we shape our food future, it is necessary that we respect the wisdom of all the folks who are invested in that future.

What are you looking forward to in terms of education at CUESA?

CUESA is has a rich history, so I’m excited to come at this time of celebrating 25 years, and guiding the organization toward the next 25 years of success. Specifically, I’m interested in looking at the programming that already exists, finding new ways to celebrate it, and furthering our impact in those programs. As we vision toward the next chapter of CUESA, I’m excited to think strategically about who are the communities we serve, what are the issues we focus on, what are the spaces we really want to engage, and how do we develop exciting and tailored programming that fulfills our mission. Mostly I’m excited to come in at this very particular moment, when there is a lot of innovation, change, and energy around what’s next for CUESA. 

Is there a particular seasonal produce item that you’re really looking forward to as we head into spring and summer? 

All the fruit! When I first moved to California and strawberry season hit, I had a friend working on a farm, so I was swimming in strawberries. I just couldn’t get enough. I’m also looking forward to peaches. When peaches come, I’ll be in a really good place.

Learn more about CUESA’s education programs.

Photo by Tory Putnam.