Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Alum Post: Katie Best

From USP to Feeding the World

I sat shaking, a mixture of cold and nerves, under the harsh fluorescent lighting of a mostly empty boardroom. The hard part was over. I had been peppered with questions about my experience, about my thoughts on food insecurity, about how I would rise to the challenges laid out in the job description that quivered in my sweaty palms. As my potential future supervisor exited, two HR representatives entered the room and the mood quickly shifted. They were interested in me. Why I was drawn to this work, how I saw myself fitting in. I took a deep breath and relaxed.

She allowed her eyes to quickly graze over the page, refreshing her memory of who I was, before she confidently stated- "So let me guess, you went to college for one thing and then your semester in Africa changed your mind." Well, when you put it like that, I guess that's how it went. 
Eastern University was the perfect fit for me. I had been gravely passionate about social justice issues for most of my life; I just hadn't yet been able to define them as problems of social justice. Eastern helped me to do that. I was fiercely loyal to our campus IJM chapter and had great aspirations to clothe the homeless, rescue the sexually abused, and save the AIDS orphans. I was so hell-bent on saving every broken person in the world, that it was impossible for me to actually channel my energy into something that was productive and helpful. 

Then naively and optimistically, I boarded that fateful plane to Entebbe.  
Although I look back on my time in Uganda with romantic, nostalgic memories of running at sunset on that red dirt track, teaching my host family nieces and nephews how to play "Patty Cake" and listening to President Obama's inaugural address over the static of a Ugandan radio, if I'm being truly honest with myself- Uganda was hard. Daily, I was witnessing people in dire poverty. I was witnessing the aftermath of years of corrupt government. It was not always easy, but it was always necessary.

The defining moment came to me as I sat in the DH with my plate of rice and cowpeas before me.  On this particular day, I sat fork in hand, and watched three small children rifling through the garbage for handfuls of uneaten rice and beans to add to the filthy plastic bags they held in their dirt-caked hands. It was something I would have never seen in the U.S. And it was something that fundamentally changed me. I became angry: Angry that I lived in a world where 25,000 children die every single day of malnutrition and related diseases, angry that any child would have to dig through trash for hopes of a full belly. I had found my fight.

Upon my return to the States, I devoted huge amounts of time and energy to researching global food insecurity. I learned about the dangers of conventionally-raised meat and the potential for a plant-based diet to help in feeding the world. I learned about domestic hunger and the correlation between obesity and malnutrition in my own country. I spent a year with AmeriCorps volunteering at a community garden initiative. I spent a year in a Master’s of Food Studies program learning more about barriers to food access and examining the role of food in religion and faith-based communities. I worked for the USDA, forming relationships with local growers and understanding more about the sacrifice and hard labor that agriculture requires. 

And today, after the interview four months ago in that harshly lit boardroom, I spend 40 hours a week with my local food bank, helping food insecure folks in a 20-county area not only access food, but access fresh food. In a country where hunger, obesity and disease are grimly juxtaposed against a flood of wealth and affluence, I get to enable an impoverished breast cancer survivor to obtain the fresh fruits and vegetables she was prescribed by her doctor. I get to introduce urban youth to unfamiliar foods like eggplants, pomegranates and beets. I help in eliminating the need for hard-working families to have to choose between feeding their children and heating their homes.

I help to make sure no one is overlooked. I help to alleviate hunger in my community. I help to make sure every belly is full.

I have never loved a 9-to-5 as much as I love my job now. And the honest-to-goodness truth is that I don't know that I ever would have discovered the work that makes me come alive, had I not stepped aboard that plane five years ago. I have dreams of one day returning to adopt a beautiful Ugandan baby, and to introduce my husband to my East African “home.” But if I am never able to return, I feel confident that what I learned in Mukono has already left its imprint on my heart.

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