by Mason Jarecki-Nimmo
You may assume your winter time waitress is just another courteous Milwaukeean, making an income with smiles and good service. Or maybe she’s secretly a vigilante crime fighter by night. I recently met Mercedes Falk, who waits tables by winter and and then farms all summer long on the west side of the state.
Mercedes is a graduate of the 2013 Food Leader Certificate Program. Her food story begins a little before the FLCP, somewhere on a farm in Kentucky, and even before that at home in Milwaukee. “I’ve always had a garden no matter where I was. Even when I lived on Van Buren the little tiny yard the size of this table had food growing in it.”
Mercedes taught Special Education in Milwaukee for 7 years, but left her career as she became more passionate about food and farming. She worked on a farm in Kentucky shortly, then actively pursued work-share CSA programs near Milwaukee. One year she became too busy to continue the work-share CSA and decided to make some changes. Enrolling in the FLCP for Mercedes was one decision in a process of lifestyle change.
I was super curious to know what Mercedes took away from the FLCP classes. “I learned about succession planting. I’d always done just one crop and then was done, I’d never thought about the beginning, middle and end of the season. I learned about how to compost better.”
For her community project Mercedes ran an after-school program for nonviolent conflict resolution based around gardening. With a group of five kids from the Delphi House charter school she built three gardens beds. The outdoor work was a plug for talking about feelings and to become more connected to each other. They grew pees, edamamae, beans, tomatoes, peppers, celery, corn, carrots, arugula, lettuce, basil, cilantro, and parsley. At the end of the season the group hosted a dinner for family or friends. The kids helped cook and two of them presented what they had learned over the season. “By doing something productive it automatically made them more in touch with themselves.”
So where is this wonderful enabler now? During the winter you can find her at Blue’s Egg AND Story Hill. Working two jobs in the winter allows her work on a farm in western Wisconsin during the growing season. The farm is a diversified organic farm supported by a 40 member CSA and on-farm pizza nights.
After my first two interviews with VGI Food Leaders I’ve learned a lot about who a Food Leader is and what they’re doing. Both participated in the FLCP in their pursuit of a happy lifestyle. Tammy insisted that there are other, more important graduates doing bigger things. But I disagree with her. A lot of people who want to see change aren’t willing to change themselves. We want to fight poverty, change policy, live in a better neighborhood, but quality can be blurred if we try to look at the big picture. Narrow it down to a neighborhood, a family, an individual. An individual making big lifestyle changes, and then sprouting back out to the people around them. That’s grassroots change, just like VGI is a grassroots organization.
Mercedes will farm again during the 2015 growing season. In the future she especially wants to become more efficient at integrating animals and produce. At her current farm they raise 125 chickens, a few steers, a hand full of sheep, a handful of pigs in addition to produce and a certified kitchen.
Find out more about the Food Leader Certificate Program http://victorygardeninitiative.org/FoodLeader