Fresh Collaborations in Deep-rooted Communities: An Interview with Michelle Bidwell

By Victoria Everett & Vy Vuong

two photos of participants gardening

“Whenever I go to my grandmother's house on any given day, she could plan a meal for her and my grandfather and half the family would show up, which would be like 10 or 12 more people. She just runs to her garden and gets all kinds of food and stretches the meal to feed everybody. And that's how we lived.”

That’s also how Michelle became inspired to assume roles in gardening and community food systems education. Michelle Bidwell has been growing greenhouse crops for more than twenty years and joined Cornell Cooperative Extension in Tioga County in February 2018 as the community food systems educator focused on the Seed to Supper (S2S) program.

In Tioga County, one in five kids do not know where their next meal will come from. Michelle believes education is crucial to addressing food insecurity through lessons on what to cook or grow, how to manage limited budgets, and which foods are nutrient dense. If these pieces come together, food security could be improved; S2S has the potential to facilitate this type of educational environment.

After completing a S2S course as a student of Marcia Eames-Sheavly, senior lecturer in Cornell University’s School of Integrative Plant Science, Michelle started her own S2S group with 6 consistent participants. She received support from Tioga Opportunities, Catholic Charities and Lounsberry Food Pantry. While she hoped that these partnerships would lead to S2S participant or facilitator recruitment, Michelle found it difficult to retain participants and found that inadequate public transportation was a hurdle for some who wanted to join the course.  

Despite a difficult start, Michelle met a woman “who wanted to take everybody under her wing” and she helped create a garden space at The Open Door Mission, a nonprofit organization providing housing, clothing, food and other financial assistance to disadvantaged and needy families in Tioga County. This partnership gave rise to Michelle’s first S2S group.

As the course progressed, Michelle noted that some participants found the most value in the social element of the S2S program. She learned that beyond teaching gardening, community building is part of the special value of S2S. In Michelle’s own words, S2S is “more about bringing people together and sharing the food and the harvest and the recipe that went along with it, than it is about the gardening practices.”

The woman who helped Michelle bring this particular S2S group to fruition was strongly motivated to support her local community members. According to Michelle, this is the foremost quality of a facilitator and a leader and an important characteristic for S2S educators to identify in order to cultivate leadership among participants. In addition to altruistic motivation, participants who are community members and understand their community’s needs and challenges are also well suited to become effective S2S leaders. Another leadership quality that Michelle has identified is an ability to diffuse dominant behaviors and create an environment where people are encouraged to share openly.

 Since starting with S2S Michelle has identified several ways to overcome obstacles. The first, is establishing committed participants. She found that some people only go to the first session of the course, take the practical program handbook and never return. Michelle muses that the program could charge participants on a sliding scale to increase the perception of S2S as a real investment. A second challenge is location and transportation. Michelle’s premier facilitator got sick and could not continue coming to the class, nor could she continue providing transportation for the other members. This experience highlighted that finding a space that is widely accessible to participants is crucial to consider while assembling the program in a community. A third challenge Michelle contemplates is participant’s susceptibility to making judgments. For example, it is not uncommon for people try to guess why a person has come to a food pantry, or what a person’s household income is. Observing the world as it is and not making assumptions is the mindset that an S2S educator or facilitator should strive to embody. Finally, following-up with past participants is difficult. When Michelle randomly crossed paths with a few participants around town, she could check in with them at that moment. Often, she could not do more than that since many of the participants in her county do not use internet or cell phones. This is an issue that Michelle seeks to address in order to evaluate the impact of the program and, subsequently, ensure sustainability.

Michelle enjoys meeting people from different backgrounds, learning from them and connecting them to each other. The S2S program is an especially unique opportunity to connect with others in a garden-based setting where individuals can grow their own food, take initiative, and participate in their community.

 

Victoria Everett is a Senior Interdisciplinary Studies major with Developmental Sociology and Community Food Systems minors in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Vy Vuong is a Master of Professional Studies candidate in International Development in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

This story is part of a series of S2S educator profiles that were developed as an assignment in PLHRT 4270: Seed to Supper, a two-semester course sequence that offers an opportunity for students to learn facilitation skills and to engage intensively with Cornell Cooperative Extension educators. Building communities and relationships is the core of the NYS Seed to Supper (S2S) program. The beginning gardening experience gives novice gardeners the tools they need to connect with others in the community, grow in confidence, and successfully grow a portion of their own food on a limited budget.

Additional Seed to Supper educator profiles: 

Photo: Spring 2018 S2S Participants, provided by Michelle Bidwell