By Lisa Boonstoppel-Pot
Change is often the result of childhood experiences and three panelists recently shared how having a sick dad, being gay or wishing the world was a better place spurred them to change the food system in their own unique ways.
Pride in Agriculture
Julia Romagnoli is known on Instagram for the #PrideinAg hashtag after feeling lonely in the agriculture sector when unable to be her full, authentic self in the workplace. Romagnoli grew up in rural Ontario and knew from an early age that her place was in agriculture. “I was the nine year old jumping out of bed early to help with morning milkings,” she told listeners of The Changemakers’ Forum, a presentation of the Arrell Food Summit hosted by the University of Guelph in November.
Her next step was to obtain a Bachelor of Science in Agriculture from the University of Guelph. While at school, she got involved in extracurricular activities and her social life really blossomed, allowing her to come to terms with the fact that she was gay. “A lot of that came from being in a more urban setting and seeing folks who were open to that identity,” said Romagnoli. “It was a real opportunity for me but that’s not to say it wasn’t a difficult journey.”
When she graduated, Romagnoli was excited to start a full-time career with John Deere as a Production Systems Specialist but felt she needed to “prove herself” before she could bring her whole self to work.
“A lot of that sparked #PrideinAg for me. Being LGBTQ in agriculture can be really lonely and you can feel like you are the only one,” she said. “It was a bit of an impossible journey.”
Creating the #PrideinAg network made it visible that there are other folks that identify as LGBTQ in agriculture and brought its presence forward. “Each story I heard was unique but with everyone I talk with, there is a conversation that they really felt alone in that journey and in coming to terms with their identity and being visible in the sector.”
Now, she wants to take these journeys from being a conversation on diversity to the next step. “What are the barriers of minority groups in food and agriculture and how can we actually move those barriers?” she asked.
Romagnoli is also keen to connect with individuals who have influence and are in positions of management to encourage them to better understand those from different backgrounds and different sexual orientations and different genders.
“There are some who did feel there wasn’t space for them in this industry and they went elsewhere. It is my job to make awareness there is space,” said Romagnoli.
The HAPPY organization
When Haile Thomas of Dallas, Texas was eight years old, her father was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes.
“Coming from a Jamaican family, food has always been a huge part of my life and also the way I learned about my culture. But the health aspect was not something we really paid attention to,” said Thomas. “I think with a lot of families you eat what you are given and eat what you like but through my dad’s diagnosis, we were catapulted into a journey to both learn and unlearn what it means to nourish our body and create holistic wellness.”
Her family began watching food documentaries and reading books and via this self-education process, were able to reverse her dad’s diagnosis without the aid of medication.
This was transformative for young Haile who said she felt disheartened about broader issues such as child obesity and wondered why information on good eating was not taught in school. “This felt like a basic foundational element of being a person … to know how to take care of your body because that is what fuels you and allows you to pursue the things that you are passionate about. Or simply to exist in this world with more resilience and strength.”
With living proof that healthy eating can transform lives from her father’s situation and knowledge she learned with her family, she wanted to start teaching her peers that, for example, the pizza they were eating was clogging their arteries. At first, she used fear-mongering facts and “vomited” the information on people around her. But she soon realized that the power of compassion and engaging in connected education was more important.
“I would not have connected to the topic of health and well-being if it had not been rooted in love and caring for my dad so I was inspired by the root of my own journey,” said Thomas.
She began doing community cooking events which led to opportunities to speak and share her knowledge. She is now an international speaker, having been on TED talks and at Michelle Obama’s 2013 Kids State Dinner. She is the youngest Certified Integrative Nutrition Health Coach in the United States. She formed the nonprofit HAPPY (Healthy Active Positive Purposeful Youth) while still a child herself.
Her passion has morphed to encompass a holistic approach to health including mental health and is “exploring ways we can engage in the health sector. We can have tunnel vision on the goals we have but there are many interconnected visions and interconnected opportunities.” One such opportunity was to write a cookbook called Living Lively which features plant-based recipes and includes seven “Points of Power” to live our ultimate potential which Thomas says encapsulates the trajectory of her work.
When asked for advice on how to move into a space of advocacy, Thomas said it's wise to “come into a place of inner reflection of how you can authentically show up.” She said when interconnected points of passion and interest fuse into a place to make a change, that naturally creates space to make that change.
Also, she advised entrepreneurs to use energy management. “You can feel the weight of the burdens of the world but without refueling yourself, you cannot offer fuel to the issue you see. That can mean taking consistent breaks to connect to energy or to mindfully eat my meal or to think of all those hands who helped make it to my plate. This grounds my work and recharges my creative energy,” she said.
She also encouraged foodies to diversify the space by embracing unique heritages and cultural foods. “We can bring something new to the table or bring forth ancient wisdom that is deeply rooted in our heritage. We can eat in ways that nurture our bodies and communities and our land.”
Personally, she found ways to remix her own favourite Jamaican recipes to make them more nourishing and sustainable. “That connected me to other recipe makers who created recipes that were more sustainable for animals and the planet as well.”
She said our power to create is accessible at every moment. Knowing that can help everyone view issues and change with “a lot more confidence and a lot more energy.”
Living the Dream
Born in Costa Rica and raised in Argentina, Raul Fernandez has always been around people where agriculture is a huge part of life.
The former Chiquita vice-president of technology of innovation is now Chief Imagination Officer of Thx Dreams, a software platform that links consumers with growers via a QR code to support growers to achieve their dreams. Fernandez said he always had a dream to help make a better world. “I know that may sound cheesy but I think, deep down we all want that.”
As a child he felt young and powerless so he knew he had to develop a super power and that super power was his imagination. “Everything that you see anywhere is the fruit of somebody’s imagination. Nothing happens before somebody imagined that.” Developing that superpower gave Fernandez a great headstart on being able to create and help others create.
Later, he combined his imagination with the skills of problem solving and that propelled him to think of how he could support farmers in Latin America. He started Breakthrough Solutions, a company to help Latin America growers become more profitable with the intention they would invest some of their profits back into the community.
“The important thing is to have a dream that is bigger than you. Like Haile. Out of love for her dad she wanted to do something about it and help people. That was bigger than her but it made her bigger,” said Fernandez.
In his own work, Thx really excites him. Farm workers are featured on the labels of their products alongside the QR code. When a consumer clicks on that code, they watch a video to learn where that worker is from, about their family and what their dream is. “We help them achieve a dream because about 20 per cent of our profit goes to help them achieve their dream. It is all about raising the dignity of the farm worker,” said Fernandez.
Fernandez said consumers want to be part of the system and growers want to be part of the system but they could not connect. Thx is the bridge between them. The videos show consumers where their money is going and reveal there are responsible workers taking care of the environment.
His advice for entrepreneurs is to believe in your dream. “Don’t let it go away.” He also said it is important to be uncompromising in your values, be ready to adjust and pivot, and do not venture forth alone. “Connect with people and surround yourself with people who can help you move forward.”
Stories are powerful, concluded Thomas. “They are catalysts for change. When we engage with other people’s journeys and honour their path, and our path, we honour the unique ways we can make change.” ◊