Saturday Series: An Interview with Nicole Wires

By Molly Redfield

In our new Saturday Series, we interview inspiring people our readers have nominated. These people are working on the frontlines to improve the global food and agricultural systems. Want to nominate someone?  E-mail your suggestions to Danielle Nierenberg!

Nicole Wires and Kris Jensen of Collective Roots (Photo Credit: Lane Johnson)

Name: Nicole Wires

Affiliation: Collective Roots

Bio: Nicole is the Food System Change Coordinator at Collective Roots, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting sustainable food systems. She has a bachelor’s degree from Stanford University in Earth Systems, an inter-disciplinary and environmental science program. Her interests are in environmental conservation, social justice, and poverty alleviation. In the midst of her undergraduate career, she spent a year in Ecuador and Tanzania working on issues related to health, education, and rural poverty. Her work culminated in the belief that supporting local food systems promotes conservation, economic development, and better health outcomes for impoverished and at-risk communities.

How would you describe the mission of Collective Roots and how did you become a part of this organization?

I would say that Collective Roots’ mission is to engage youth and communities at large in food system change. I started with Collective Roots as an intern. Although I initially worked in international development, I felt that our current working model for development wasn’t effective, and I was discouraged by the process. I saw funding for many international development projects determined by governments or large organizations like the World Bank. Projects implemented following this model weren’t having their intended impacts, or helping the communities they were intended to. Many of the projects focused on altering subsistence models into industrial ones using cash crop exports to lead development. This would have environmental conflicts and other complicated sets of issues. I got frustrated with this movement. After my experience with international development projects, I found myself wanting to work domestically on food justice issues. I began interning with Collective Roots and took a position once it opened up.

What motivates you to work on issues of sustainable agriculture and food justice with Collective Roots?

My motivating factor is definitely the relationships I have with people in East Palo Alto. East Palo Alto is one of the last low-income places to live in the bay area. We have affordable housing, an incredibly rich agricultural history, and the set up for an agricultural cooperative—a sort of utopian society. There are people here who are growing all the food they need for a livelihood on just one acre of land. In the past, the incorporated city was 70 percent African American. The civil rights movement was also huge here. Many of the communities of immigrants that have settled in this area bring with them a strong agricultural heritage. For example, in the late 90s we had a wave of immigration from the Pacific Islands and they brought their rich food and history. The confluence of all of these people and their fascinating connections to food and the land creates an incredible community to work with.

Where does Collective Roots work and how does it encourage community development in these areas?

We’re based in East Palo Alto, which is divided by a highway. This highway creates a physical barrier between East Palo Alto’s wealthy and low-income communities. Where we work spans only 2.5 square miles, but has the highest incidence of foreclosure, unemployment, and type 2 diabetes in the area. We are also expanding into neighboring communities like East Redwood City and Menlo Park.  One of our main efforts is to encourage people to build their own things. We’re a background gardening network with people growing their own food using shared resources. Land is centralized in community gardening and people bring their own materials. Our approach is opposite to that. We have work share parties for communal labor, a seed lending library, and decentralized land. People come to our seed library and then deposit seeds that they have harvested themselves. We also have a tool lending library that people can borrow from. As part of that library, we include food preservation tools for dehydrating and canning foods. People also come to the workshops we host, exchange cell phone numbers with other participants, and then meet up to share their knowledge and seeds. I think this aspect is one of the most amazing things about our program.

Why does Collective Roots have specific school based programs and can you describe them?

We have two main programs. One is for youth and the other is focused on adults. In our youth program, depending on the contracts we have established, we work with 7 to 10 different schools. At these schools, we give cooking, gardening, and nutrition lessons. We also help train teachers and give them the resources they need to conduct these lessons themselves. But working with just youth isn’t enough to get them and their families to eat healthier and more sustainably. Children who get excited about our work need their parents on board at home to support them. Kids don’t have lots of agency on their own, so often times Collective Roots works together with kids and their parents.

How do you think people can be more involved in their local food systems?

There are a number of ways in which people can be more involved. That is one of the things that is so exciting about working with food justice issues. We eat three meals a day. Therefore, we can make multiple choices throughout the course of one day to support local food systems. We have multiple opportunities to think critically about where we get our food and where it’s grown. We can shop at a farmers market, join a local CSA, or grow our own food. I personally advocate a lot for people growing their own food. The experience of growing food really gives people a deeper appreciation for farmers and their work. I find that people who grow their own food are more likely to support local farmers and their communities.


What kind of partnerships does Collective Roots have with the local community and what kinds of relationships do you think are important for the organization to move forward and for Palo Alto’s food system to become more sustainable and integrated?

We work very closely with a number of partner organizations and non-profits. I don’t think we’d be able to do what we do without these partnerships. Many patients who are diagnosed with chronic diseases get involved in our program because of referrals from our partnering health clinics and healthcare facilities. There are even opportunities for them to participate in our programs through their healthcare provider. For example, patients can be eligible to join our network for free. This membership then allows them to access all of our resources. We also have unique and amazing partnerships with schools, drug rehabilitation centers, and residential transition programs for the formerly incarcerated. Our work helps people get their feet back on the ground by helping them to develop life skills, providing job training, and increasing access to healthy food. We really rely on our partnerships and the services they provide—our collaborations are a huge component of our success. Leveraging partnerships not only lets us provide our services to a wider audience, but it also more fully integrates us into our community.

Molly Redfield is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.

To purchase State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet please click HERE.

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