Monday, September 16, 2013

Civic Engagement and Local Food

This is a guest post by Kyla Byers, AmeriCorps VISTA with the Food Policy Council and the Alaska State Division of Agriculture.  Kyla is a 2011 graduate of UAA. 

    I started at UAA in 2003 with only the vague idea that I was interested in “environmental issues.” I remained undeclared for 5 years, taking GERs and other courses that interested me. It wasn’t until my two study abroad trips, where I was exposed to new ways of thinking and living, that I developed an interest in sustainable agriculture. When I returned to UAA, I enrolled in the fledgling Environment and Society major. It appealed to me because it focused on both natural sciences and social sciences. It ultimately looked at how humans interact with their environment—including how we grow, distribute and consume food. The more I became involved in food issues, the more I became interested in local food as a means, not only for environmental stewardship, but also for improving food security and nutrition.

    A few civic engagement courses were requirements of my major and piqued my interest in pursuing the Certificate in Civic Engagement as well. Those courses helped me realize that I could be more effective in the work I wanted to do if I became a more engaged member of society. I soon discovered the reward and the sense of purpose gained from actively working in cooperation with others to directly and positively affect my community.

    After graduating, I was lucky enough to find an AmeriCorps VISTA opportunity that exactly matched my interests. Working with the Food Policy Council and the Division of Agriculture, I coordinate the Farmers Market Quest Program which sets markets up to accept SNAP benefits (aka food stamps). As a VISTA, it is my purpose to address issues faced by low-income communities. My work not only helps improve wellness among low-income Alaskans, but supports local farmers who are key to our state’s food security. Because of this position, I have become more ingrained in Alaska’s local food community and had extensive networking and learning opportunities working with people from state government, non-profits and food pantries to farmers, market managers and those on food assistance. I credit my CEL courses with garnering interest in this type of work and see my VISTA position as a huge stepping stone towards a meaningful career advocating for local, nutritious foods.

    As a full circle experience, this summer I had an Environment and Society major, also earning the Certificate in Civic Engagement, who came and completed her Civic Engagement Internship with us at the Farmers Markets!