May 11, 2023
Bridgette Byrd grew up in the kitchen. Her father, a self-taught professional chef, did the cooking at home, and most nights Byrd was right there beside him, observing his skilled use of tools and expert food preparation techniques. But more than anything, “I loved being able to look at his passion for the work that he did,” she shares.
Byrd went on to spend six years at Rutgers University, first as an undergraduate studying psychology, then as a graduate researcher in the field of wellbeing. Her education took her around the world to study the relationship between communities and food: not only where they source their food from, but the challenges faced when there isn’t enough. “Part of my role as a researcher was not only to assess [problems like food insecurity], but what type of initiatives we could strategize to secure food for these communities,” Byrd says. “And it’s not just [abroad]—there are a lot of things we see here, close to home, that are very similar.”
It was during her studies at Rutgers that Byrd, a New Jersey native, got to know and love the city of Newark. When an opportunity arose to serve as a FoodCorps educator in partnership with Greater Newark Conservancy, it checked all the boxes. Reading about FoodCorps’ mission to connect kids with healthy food in schools, “I couldn’t believe how much it fit with who I was,” she reflects.
In 2023 so far, Byrd and her fellow FoodCorps service members in Newark have logged approximately 586 hours providing hundreds of hands-on healthy food lessons to more than 1,300 students. We talked to her about her journey from the kitchen of her childhood home to the classrooms and gardens where she now spends her days educating the next generation of environmental stewards.
Bridgette Byrd: My inspiration began with my love for food culture. It was an essential part of my upbringing. Mealtime, special occasions…we did a lot of sitting around the table as a family. My grandparents on both sides maintained gardens, so they had a lot of fresh vegetables, fruit trees…everything that grew in their yards came onto our table. They were very adamant about eating fresh local foods.
I watched my father, who is a retired self-taught chef, work magic in the kitchen. I loved being at his side and looking at his passion for the work that he did, but also his great skill in how to handle natural food and prepare it with love. I was 8, 9, 10 years old, working alongside him on a school night as his personal sous chef and I learned so much about food selection, whole foods and how good they are for us, preparation, preservation…these are crucial for any child to have an understanding of. The power of food and what it does for us.
From 2016 to 2022, I was enrolled at Rutgers University in Newark. I traveled to Puerto Rico, Greece, and Italy, and that’s when I got a [lot of] knowledge about sustainable food systems. I learned about how fruits and vegetables were procured. I also learned about communities that felt the impact of food challenges due to catastrophic storms, mass immigrant migrations; food insecurity was very common. Part of my role as a researcher was not only to assess these problems, but what type of initiatives we could strategize to secure food.
As an environmental steward, I wanted to raise awareness about these issues while seeking solutions to procure locally sourced foods, particularly for communities that need it the most. I knew Newark from commuting back and forth to school, and I knew that was the place to break ground. So that’s what got me into this particular role I’m in. My dad shaped that foundation for me, and then I furthered that through education, and that’s why I am where I am today.
BB: I was doing a research paper one Friday night, and read about FoodCorps after receiving an email pertaining to recruitment from another Non-profit organization, Glocal Science and Sustainability. I read their mission and vision along with listed service locations. I realized there was an opportunity to apply my knowledge and creativity in service to the community.
I was also intrigued by FoodCorps’ framework with hands-on learning competencies that connected students with culturally relevant foods. I loved how they talked about supporting traditions and cultures and tying Indigenous groups to food. Their core competencies align with my personal beliefs; maintaining traditions and recipes in food culture.
BB: I really had a birds-eye view while enrolled at Rutgers University Newark as a commuter. While walking through the city streets, or taking the shuttle to the parking deck, I observed the differences within the city. I noticed historic buildings, art decor, and the urban outdoor markets. There’s a variety of fresh foods throughout Newark’s busy historic downtown shopping district; you get a whiff of savory meats or fresh breads intertwined with the rhythm of hustle and grind. Events and activities tie all things to food. I love the different cultures, their presence can be deeply felt within this city through traditions, image, and their voices. It’s the energy this city needs to thrive.
Experiencing the sights and sounds made me conscious of green expansion to feed people who are threatened with food insecurity. Their lack of basic essentials, like access to fresh fruits and vegetables is a common problem within large cities . Many underserved residents voice common concerns like minimal access to fresh foods due to transportation, disability, or other conditions. During the pandemic, data revealed the disproportionate effects on poor communities who lack basic essentials. Many people encountered new threats when faced with having to choose between utility bill payments and feeding their family. As these pains were voiced it exposed the urban disparities, as many outcomes of poor health were related to food insecurity. This motivated organizations, churches, and institutions to advocate on behalf of community members who are often overlooked.
I advocate for the psycho-social health and well-being of all citizens and work to provide education in accessing healthy food. I realized that too often, the ugly details overshadow the beauty and the resilience of the people; I wanted to represent Newark and its residents in a different light. I felt that if there was one community that I wanted to work in and serve, it would be the city of Newark. I feel I chose Newark, but Newark also chose me.
BB: A typical day consists of learning lessons taught in the classroom, cafeteria, and the school’s garden. Lessons can range from the “Ecology of Food” to “Growing and Accessing Healthy Food”. Preparing healthy food in the classroom allows students to participate in tastings and explore food properties using all their senses. We procure local produce monthly by Jersey Fresh farm to school highlighted in their Jersey fresh monthly newsletter which I incorporate into FoodCorp lessons. I help kids understand taste perceptions; being aware of your food in that moment equates to what you feel, taste and discover about this experience. Sometimes I’ll say ‘close your eyes and just think about what descriptive words come to mind as you are having this experience.’ It’s a way of connecting them with the food, which I think is very important. When they provide their subjective experience it’s their own and they personally identify what that looks and feels like to them. I like them to draw correlations to places and people. After tastings I listen to their personal feedback to gauge their food experience which helps me understand their likes or dislikes.
When the weather permits I like working with students and teachers in the school garden where we plant, maintain, water, or harvest vegetables. I help kids understand their responsibility to care for the environment and their role as agents of change. The value I add to develop young learners is similar to the value added when taking care of our community gardens. We are very similar to nature. We need a sturdy foundation, warmth, nourishment, and the right care. We often have to be pruned so our fruits will flourish at the right time.
TM: How do the kids respond to the lessons? What impacts have you noticed?
BB: Whenever I show up to a classroom the kids are attentive and ready to learn. I think that’s the biggest thing. When I enter the classroom, they’re like ‘we’re going to get something good today!’ They predict an engaging lesson that’s fun and stimulating.
Their response is demonstrated through hugs, thank-you’s, requests for daily versus weekly visitations. Some of the kids are like, ‘can I come to your home?’ I’m like, ‘no but we can go to the farm! That’s home away from home for me.’
They also appreciate the personal attention to their specific needs. I acknowledge them individually and I’m attentive allowing time to give feedback and express how they feel about the lessons. They love when they’re heard and affirmed. That’s so important for their esteem and self-identity.
BB: At the onstart my cohort participated in a community engagement event held by Greater Newark Conservancy. It was a community event nourishing the community and we were tasked with providing a taste test to members of the community. We made a Mediterranean salad mix with farro, fresh vegetables and a balsamic vinaigrette. We were on the southside of Newark, an area faced with high crime and poverty, yet we stepped out together with a mindset to serve the citizens in the community. As I made my way through the crowd I mingled and introduced myself to many residents, gardeners, and vendors. I met two women who were community residents and volunteers who advocated for environmental justice, Rutgers Newark students Fama and Layla, Councilman Patrick Council from the South Ward and Chef Shani who demos authentic dishes that appeal to every palette.
I shared important details with each of them about an upcoming Hawthorne Avenue School Fall Fest which was scheduled at the Greater Newark Conservancy Hawthorne Avenue Farm. [Ed. note: Hawthorn Avenue Farm is a three-acre urban farm in Newark’s South Ward neighborhood, tended by volunteers from the community.] Two weeks passed and during our event, everyone I talked to that day—seven people—showed up to support the Fall Fest. Our Director of Education was like, ‘how did you meet these people?’ My peers were like, ‘she was out there recruiting people and letting them know she’s a FoodCorps Service Member in partnership with Greater Newark Conservancy.’ That day I witnessed the power of social connections and the power of a social network. As a member of the FoodCorps organization I’m going to let people know who FoodCorps is and how we connect communities with education, fresh food and cultural experiences.
That day we took a photo at the Hawthorne Avenue farm, all of us encountered new social contacts in the garden space. I was reminded to be courageous and intentional when stepping out into unknown territory forming social connections with community members that may not look or sound like me. It was beautiful. That story aligns with many experiences I’ve had along my life journey building social connections with community members regardless of race, religion, age, and gender. Together everyone achieves more.
Thrive Market is on a mission to end food inequality in the United States. We have raised $10 million in healthy groceries as of March 2023, thanks in large part to our partnership with FoodCorps. Learn more:
How This FoodCorps Educator is Planting Seeds for a Better Food Future
How FoodCorps is Fighting for Food Justice in Mississippi
How Thrive Market and FoodCorps are Advocating for a Healthier Back-to-School Season
Food Equality is on the Agenda at the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health
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