Featured Innovator: Randolph Keaton of Vacation Vittles
At first glance, Vacation Vittles is a simple, savvy twist on the standard CSA business model. Beach vacationers staying on the shores of Wilmington, NC, order farm-fresh bags of seasonal produce grown by local farmers and delivered by youth. It’s a sunny story of short-value-chain economic development on the seashore.
But Randolph Keaton—the driving force behind Vacation Vittles—is not a person whose story begins or ends with oceanside burgers and grilled corn on the cob. Rather, Randolph uses the unjust circumstances of living in proximity to concentrated hog feeding operations, high rates of asthma and obesity, contaminated groundwater, deforestation, deteriorated soils, intensified hurricanes, and the resultant flooding—all happening within 60 miles of the beach—to educate, embolden and employ rural Black youth.
Randolph is the executive director of Men and Women United for Youth and Families (MWUYF), a nonprofit in Columbus County, NC. Located 30 miles from any county seat, he and his staff provide a wide range of social services to meet the myriad needs of their very rural community. It is a place that Randolph describes as ravaged by systemic disenfranchisement and persistent poverty. Vacation Vittles is a piece of his busy workload, but only just a piece. While the program teaches youth entrepreneurial skills, Randolph’s long-term goal is to grow an engaged citizenry that will permanently improve their community’s circumstances for good.
When Randolph first pitched the idea of teaching youth to grow vegetables, “folks would say that kids wouldn’t work outside because of disability from the asthma.” The asthma, he explained, is caused by air pollutants from nearby confined feeding lots. “These hog farms, well, you can’t see the hog farms. They make it so you can’t see them. But they can’t hide that smell.” Asthma or not, the youth showed up, and the work of growing vegetables began. “We told them, ‘If you grow it and if you sell it, you keep the money.’ That kept them coming back.”
About six years ago, Randolph also began taking the young growers to environmental justice summits in cities across the East Coast. “When we first started going, they weren’t used to being in urban places with a diversity of people.” They didn’t know terms like “food desert” or “food justice,” and didn’t realize that these terms were used to describe places like Columbus County. Over the years, as they grew accustomed to the lingo and the melting pot of summit participants, the youth began to clearly see how economic injustice, environmental injustice, and health disparities are linked and harmful to families like theirs.
Featured Educator: Chef Dave Smoke McCluskey
Chef Dave is a grizzly man with a scientist’s mind and a pirate’s mouth. He’s got 40 years in the culinary industry, a career composed of little formal training, dozens of restaurants, hundreds of catering gigs, and boundless curiosity. His quest for perfection on the palate stems from one simple yet elusive question of his peoples’ past: “What has been lost?”
“It’s not just about the genocide and ethnic cleansing that was perpetuated against us. It’s about the loss of foodways … the totality of what was taken,” he says. “What did our ancestors eat. Why did they cook the way they cooked?”
“What is that bacon in your beans replacing?” he asks. “Was it bear? Turkey? Hazelnut oil?”
Chef Dave is a prodigious reader when he’s not cooking. He scours esoteric histories and scientific texts for clues that shed light about lost foodways on the North American continent. While he currently lives in the Savannah River region of upstate South Carolina, his focus is Akwesasne, the lands that straddle the border between Ontario, Quebec, and New York State, where his family is from. “Being Indigenous in this country means that parts of your culture are locked away in boxes and museums that another culture holds the keys to.”
The topic of fat specifically piques his interest. “When you remove cultural fats,” he explains, “you end up with fat substitutes, like lard, which just aren’t as healthy as bear fat or duck fat.”
“There’s a difference in the way that Indigenous folks used fat, as a flavor,” he says. “It wasn’t about massive amounts of meat fried or sautéed, like in your Western cuisine. We use pork now for our substitute fat. We’ve substituted it to make up for what’s missing … That’s what chefs do. We improvise.” But in the process of improvising, he wants to know, what’s gone missing? What environmental harm has been perpetuated by a monoculture of hog? What wild foraged nutrients are now deficient in our bodies, and what has that done to our brains? What flavors have been forgotten? What inequities were created when modern agriculture replaced matriarchal growing, preserving, storage and cooking traditions? And how is humanity worse off for it? “You have to look at pre- and post-contact, pre- and post-reservation” histories to understand where and when those losses and changes occurred, he says.
Partner Organization News: Promoting Racial Equity at the Michigan State University Center for Regional Food Systems
The Michigan State University Center for Regional Food Systems (CRFS) works across local, national, and international spheres to support just, sustainable, and regionally integrated food systems. Since its founding in 2012, the Center for Regional Food Systems has employed a combination of applied research and outreach to advance collaborative, community partnerships on projects ranging from farm to table to food system policy. CRFS recognizes the power that cross-disciplinary cooperation and collective impact have in tackling complex social issues. Accordingly, the Center has positioned itself as a “backbone organization,” fostering a network of diverse perspectives in the pursuit of a common agenda: championing good, healthy, and affordable food.
CRFS is especially interested in furthering racial equality in food systems. Historically, institutions of higher learning have perpetuated systemic racism and systems of privilege; therefore, CRFS has emphasized racial equality across all their initiatives and projects. To that end, the Center produces the Annotated Bibliography on Structural Racism in the United States, which is now in its seventh edition with an upcoming eighth edition on the horizon. By providing current peer-reviewed and gray literature material on the intersectionality between race and food systems, this annotated bibliography is an important resource for students, non-profit advocates, and food policy councils alike. CRFS is cognizant that food systems have been predominantly white spaces, and that racism within these systems is ongoing and systemic. One way CRFS facilitates change is through the Racial Equity in the Food System Workgroup. This group, composed of community food practitioners and cooperative extension professionals from across the nation, holds webinars and trainings to promote racial equity. Through the annotated bibliography, as well as the workgroup, CRFS aims to uplift marginalized voices, encourage self-reflection, and create an empathetic dialogue surrounding issues of race in the food system.