Guest blog post from Carolina Lukac, a participant in our Breakthrough Leaders Program for Sustainable Food Systems. She is a co-founder of Huerto Romita, an urban agriculture demonstration and education center focused on community development and activism through garden-based learning and permaculture design as well as Educational Program and School Garden Director at Sembradores Urbanos and owner of Fermentos Ninkasi , a homegrown fermentation business. Participating in the Breakthrough Leaders Program represents an opportunity to share her experiences living and working in the South (Mexico) with a community she deeply admires in the North (Vermont).
What are you most looking forward to about the Breakthrough Leaders Program?
I am struggling to find Spanish translations for many terms and phrases in the food systems vocabulary. I feel as though there is a cultural divide between food systems initiatives in the North and South, and I am looking forward to clarifying my own vision of what food systems initiatives could look like in Mexico. Gathering a group of individuals passionate about food, in a local landscape like Vermont, during a global time like now, seems like a recipe for a revolution. A delicious revolution!
What about our food systems do you want to change?
I believe there is a spiritual connection to food that needs to be honored and stories behind our food that need to be told.
How did you become an urban gardener and educator?
My connection to gardening came through food (I grew up in a family where food is love) and the individuals who have mostly inspired my journey have been educators. I was born and raised in a huge metropolis; however, I had no connection to agriculture until I went to college in the Hudson Valley. There, I experienced CSAs and the local food movement, I was involved in Farm to School initiatives and I began to question and explore where my food came from. When I returned to Mexico City after college, I looked for organizations and people dedicated to working urban food systems. Eventually, I was lucky to meet two women who felt similarly as me, and we co-founded Sembradores Urbanos. I am an urban gardener at heart because I love the dynamic environment of my community and I believe the future is in cities.
Why do you think community gardens are important?
My connection with agriculture is through food, and I have always considered that food feeds bodies and souls. Community gardening is an opportunity to nourish human relationships and earth stewardship, food becomes the web that unites people from different backgrounds and food is one of our most basic human necessities. I believe that the social dynamic of a community garden is equally as important as the agricultural aspect. I consider community gardens as revolutionary, progressive, regenerative.
What lessons have you learned from your work so far that would benefit other food leaders?
During the past year and a half, I keep revisiting my experience with community gardens in the Romita neighborhood – we taught neighbors how to grow their own food, we gardened with them for months, and we created wholesome interpersonal relationships. However, when I visited the community gardens during harvest season, I was continually surprised at how little was harvested and how abundantly amazing their gardens were. During these visits I learned what I consider to be one of my most valuable lessons – its not just about growing food, but also about harvesting and eating the food you grow. If people don´t know how to harvest swiss chard, or what the nutritional value is, or how to prepare a meal with swiss chard, then it really doesn´t even matter if they know how to cultivate swiss chard.
What are the differences between food systems in Mexico and the US?
Mexican neighborhood markets must be experienced in order to fully appreciate their beauty and intricacies. Every neighborhood has a market, vendors are often family members and have maintained their stall for years, produce is multi-colored and gorgeous, you can find practically anything you would use in a kitchen or serve on your table under one roof, vendors know their produce, and dump trucks collect kilos of organic waste at the end of the day. However, in Mexico City markets, roughly 80% of produce is from conventional chemical agriculture, many fruits are imported from around the world, plastic bags and Styrofoam cups are plentiful, canned goods from China are invading, and campesinos (rural farmers) are increasingly squeezed out of vending space as more privileged middlemen take over stalls.
I’ve visited and strolled through several farmer’s markets in the USA and deeply admire the environmental, social, and culinary ethics represented. Fresh produce, locally grown, family farm, and fair trade spirit is what my food system revolution would bring to places like Mexico City. This fusion of old world and new world, city and country, local and global is what I envision.
What was your most memorable meal to date? Why?
I have fond memories of my family’s Christmas soup, enjoyed every year on Christmas Eve. The soup, Kapostaleves, is a typical Hungarian dish prepared with sauerkraut, sausage, and paprika. It has an extremely strong taste, a pungent smell, and it is not at all attractive. Although I strongly disliked it for at least 20 years of my life, every year at the dinner table, I would eat 1 spoonful in honor of my family. However, most recently and as a result of my journey into food, family history, and fermentation, I love the soup. I actually ferment several heads of cabbage each year to make enough sauerkraut for the family’s soup. I love the smell and I don’t mind the Hungarian sausage (I am mostly vegetarian). I like to believe that I inherited the soup in my blood, and that the family tradition will continue for decades to come.
What is your favorite food? Why?
Food that has history and ingredients that have stories. I like to know what I eat. Once I know, food always seems more tasty.