Thanks for joining us for another episode of Patrons & Partnerships, presented by the Library Partnership Branch of the Alachua County Library District.
Our guest today is Meg Thelosen, Board President of Working Food, a nonprofit which works to cultivate and sustain a resilient local food community in North Central Florida through collaboration, economic opportunity, education, and seed stewardship. In this episode, we discuss Working Food’s history and goals, and touch on how they handled COVID.
The second half of this interview will be posted on April 14th.
Working Food: https://workingfood.org/
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You can view a transcript of this podcast on ACLD's YouTube Channel.
Hi, thanks for joining us for another episode of Patrons & Partnerships. Today we spoke with Meg Thelosen, one of the cofounders of First Magnitude Brewing Company and Working Food, a local nonprofit that works to cultivate and sustain a resilient local food community in North Central Florida. This episode has been edited for length and clarity and has been split into two parts. The second half will be posted April 14th. [music]Eleanore:
Hi, Meg, thank you for joining us today. Would you mind telling us a little bit about yourself and how you got involved with Working Food?Meg:
Sure. I am one of the cofounders of First Magnitude Brewing Company. We opened in 2014 and I was running the business side from startup through the first three years. One of our goals was definitely to open our doors and enjoy working with local community organizations of all types that, you know, made sense for fundraising awareness, take advantage of having a space for it, and an opportunity for folks to gather and hopefully support what they're working on in the community, whether it's science, art, you name it, pretty much everything. Like, the number of amazing organizations in our community that I thought I knew, already knew about, I really only had scratched the surface. One of the groups at the time, pretty early on, like literally very soon after we opened, through one of my business partners at First Magnitude, Christine Denny introduced us to Forage at the time - which was named, the name of the organization before it became Working Food. And so Anna Prizzia and Melissa DeSa, who were the founders of Forage, started approaching Christine and then me about doing some fundraisers. Forage, that they founded almost exactly 10 years ago, I think primarily focused on starting awareness around heritage seeds and seed saving and seed banking and seed sharing of seeds that are really important to our local food system in terms of climate and adaptation, diversity, all those things. So they may have been focused on other things that I’m, unfortunately may not be aware of. But I know that that was the main, I believe that was the main thing. So they had really kind of gone out early for quite a number of years in other regions in the country, similar to, frankly, craft breweries. The Southeast, and specifically Florida at the time, was a little bit behind. There wasn't much attention, much less organizations that were focused on seeds. I was intrigued and interested to learn more about that, because I hadn't been exposed to it. And then, as somebody that was very busy running First Magnitude, I was impressed with their level of professionalism, and just the events that they did and the education that they provided. It was always like, really, really beautifully done and I thought was a really interesting and an important part of the community. Fast forward a few years from there, and Anna Prizzia - who is now a County Commissioner, by the way, and at the time, was a part-time professor at UF and doing Forage - she had been working on kind of the next vision or the next thing in the local food systems world. She had identified the idea of potentially developing what we called a Community Food Center. And essentially, what we looked at doing was, it's deliberately a systems based approach, so no longer just focusing on seeds. At the time, Forage had started doing also youth programs and partnerships with Cultural Arts Coalition and some other important, wonderful partners. And so they brought in the gardens and science based programming. The other, third area that we decided to kind of combine when creating Working Food at the time was - and taking Forage became Working Food - and it was sort of the marriage of… There was Blue Oven Kitchens, which was operating. Val Leitner is an amazing person who had founded that. And that was sort of version 1.0 of a shared commercial kitchen in Gainesville. And she was operating out on South Main. They had been needing to do the next thing as well. And so Working Food was literally, quite literally, the merger-marriage of Forage and Blue Oven Kitchens. And we did a lot of fundraising and outreach and searching to find the place to pull this together. And that's where we ended up on Northwest 10th Avenue in the Grove Street area, near Cypress and Grove Brewery and Afternoon Restaurant, and opened the shared commercial kitchen in 2019 I think? December 20 - or 18. So that's how we got to Working Food and it still is at that location.Eleanore:
Could you tell us a bit about the mission and goals of Working Food and any notable events in its history?Meg:
Sure. So Working Foods’ mission now is to build a resilient local food system, economy, however you want to put it. That covers a lot and that is intentional. As I mentioned earlier, it is deliberately a systems-based approach. Because one of the early descriptions when we were forming Working Food, we described it as the intersection of kitchen, commerce, and culture. And that means that our approach is that in order to make hopefully more systemic, positive impact on the local food systems, it is a multi pronged approach by definition. There are many very important, amazing organizations in our community that are focused on a particular area that's related to the food system. The best example is Bread of the Mighty. So food relief, of course, is extremely important. And thank goodness for organizations like Bread of the Mighty and many churches, you know, you name it. We, however, again, are trying to be an organization that works in the middle of some key areas. Our goal is to be like an advisor, and in a community of our size that's worked well. People have been very open and wanting to work with us and talk to us, whether it's you know, city and county, folks that are working on things in the comprehensive plans that deal with food systems, or whether it's local farmers or folks at UF. There's a great collaboration that happens and we're definitely in the middle of that. Our three program areas that are specific and support those goals are again, the seeds in a partnership with Grow Hub. Melissa DeSa runs that area. And she does amazing work out there finding heritage seeds and rare seeds, bringing them into Grow Hub, cultivating them, and then building out a very important seed bank and seed sharing program and education program. She also does workshops and things like that around, you know, rare varieties, all sorts of interesting programming. And then the other area is youth programs, where we have had ongoing youth gardens programs with elementary age children through partnerships with Cultural Arts Coalition, Greater Duvall Neighborhood Association, and now SWAG, the Southwest Advocacy Group. So those are happening every week. It's amazing, very high quality, high impact. Just wonderful programming for these elementary age students to be in the garden, learn about healthy food, taste it. And then the last is our kitchen culinary program. And that is our shared certified commercial kitchen and specialized storage that we built out and manage for local food and beverage based businesses and business owners that are looking to start or scale their business. Access to affordable and accessible and quality equipment and space that's certified for them to start or scale is hard to find, so we provide that. And then the specialized storage that's co-located is - oftentimes, these same entrepreneurs need to be able to have cold storage or freezer storage and dry storage co-located so that they can also do their purchasing or storage of finished products. We have about 17 entrepreneurs of all different types. It's a really fun mix of folks that are from food trucks through meat processing from three local women ranchers through a beverage business- Brio, is a local cold brew. And a couple caterers that are using our facilities and what minimal support services at this point we’re able to provide.Eleanore:
That's really cool. I can't think of any other rentable kitchen like that that someone could use.Meg:
Correct, we are sort of- there is one in Ocala that's been around for quite a while. I don't know much about it. But that was the closest that I was aware of. And so it's, there's definitely been demand, and that was how Anna roped me in, because I could understand, having started a business, like, how hard that is. And knowing that-Eleanore:
It's just exciting that there is that demand out there. Because in our view, from a food systems point of view, the ability for folks to have at least a shot at it, to build their own wealth, whether it's their family business wealth, or whatever, it's really important to give the opportunity, hopefully for some small, really micro businesses to get started.Eleanore:
Yeah. I know that that sort of equipment is incredibly expensive, so I can't imagine how difficult it is for a small business to get started without that sort of assistance.Meg:
Exactly. It just- finding the space, and then like you say the equipment, and then you have to keep it up, you know, the maintenance and repairs, like you're saying. I mean it's-Eleanore:
So having that, it’s- it's exciting, and we're hoping that we can continue it and meet the demand as best we’re able.Eleanore:
So it opened in 2019 and then a year later COVID lockdowns started.Meg:
So, how - how has Working Food handled COVID? I know at one point the kitchen was shut down, right?Meg:
Right, exactly. So like almost every organization, you know, it's almost like, not even necessary to say anymore, we were definitely hugely impacted. So the one area that was actually able to keep going pretty much without a blip and actually like, experience kind of an increase in activity was the seeds, which was kind of interesting to see. So number one, it was still safe for Melissa and her team for the most part. Once they were able to figure out how they could be in the gardens and then do the processing, they were able to keep up. Actually in her area, sales of seeds, because we do sell them, she has beautiful seed packets that are just, even the artwork on the packages is amazing, that are regularly available at Ward's and Auk Market at Curia. So actually, she was kind of inundated with requests for purchasing seeds. So that was really interesting to see. She called it the equivalent almost of the Victory Garden effect during the war, where people were already- there was increasing interest in their own gardening or resilient food options. But once these supply chain things and everything, and people had more time at home, you know, it really like put a huge spotlight on the need for that. I mean, it was really kind of neat to see. Even some of the - there are some larger, significantly larger seed banks, like, stores. They were even reaching out to Melissa, because they were running out of inventory, so... [laughs] And then youth gardens, we definitely had to pause with our partners for safety reasons. And then the team pretty early on were able to be resourceful, and they pivoted to a kit-based approach. So they were able to design some really unique garden based kits that were distributed so that the students, these young children could have it as an activity at home. [music] Thanks for listening to Patrons and Partnerships! If you know of an individual or organization you’d like to recommend for an interview, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. To listen to more episodes, find us on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or Spotify. and be sure to check out the Alachua County Library on Spotify while you’re there for chill playlists to read to, hand-picked by our librarians. Again, the second half of this episode will be posted April 14th. We'll see you then! The Spring Teen Art Show is open for submissions! Teens aged 16 to 19 are encouraged to submit their work up until April 15th for the chance to see their art displayed on our website or hung on the HQ Gallery Wall. More information, including entry forms, can be found online at aclib.us/events. Have you heard the news? Your library card now grants you access to Hoopla, a music and video streaming service with thousands of albums, comics, and movies you can enjoy on any device with the Hoopla app. There's no need to place a hold- all of the content is available on demand at any time. To check it out, go to aclib.us/hoopla. Storytime on the Green is back for the new year starting January 11th. Visit our site at aclib.us/storytimeonthegreen for a list of times and locations for all branches. Partnership staff hold Storytimes at Smokey Bear Parkoff of 15th every Thursday at 10:
30am, weather permitting, and we have a representative from the Dolly Parton Imagination Library to help you sign up. The Dolly Parton Imagination Library provides preschool children with a free book every month until age 5. If you have a child under age 5 in your household, it’s a great opportunity to encourage their love of reading. Looking to encourage your child’s love of science and technology? Place a hold on one of ACLD’s STEM kits, courtesy of the Rotary Club of Gainesville. Each kit includes hands-on educational exploration of a STEM topic, with an interactive toy, book, and DVD on topics ranging from electricity to physics. Check out the full listing of kits at aclib.us/stem-kits!