Where healing the inner child meets healing WNY’s food system: Meet Kristin Heltman-Weiss
As a young girl growing up in the largely affluent village of East Aurora, Kristin was one of the few in her community experiencing food insecurity. She shares, “In elementary and middle school, I was one of a handful of kids in my community who qualified for [food stamps and] free lunch, but I never got [lunch] because I didn’t want to be judged by the kids I grew up with. I chose to go without eating than to be embarrassed.”
Fast forward to her 30s, Kristin began to recognize that it was not her responsibility to harbor shame or embarrassment about her experience. Rather, that she was harmed while at the intersection and mercy of several dysfunctional systems—including the food system. “No one should have to feel that way. Because we all need food, and healthy foods should be available to everybody. It should be done with dignity, not shame attached to it.” She shared.
Even in light of her individual and familial struggles, Kristin recognizes the privileges that she simultaneously held during that time that helped keep her and her family afloat. “I had good access to education. I lived in a walkable community. I started cleaning houses at 11 [in my community] to be able to afford things. So, in many ways, I look back and think, ‘Oh, I was lucky’.”
Collective formed two years later and now owns 37 acres of fertile, second-generation farmland in Orchard Park. Their mission of cultivating farmer-led and community-rooted agriculture and food systems to actualize the rights of under-resourced peoples comes with only three requirements:
“This system honors that every group comes from different cultural traditions and practices surrounding how they organize, how they share, and how they support one another. And that's not on us to tell them to do it differently.” Kristin says. “The current system operates under the idea that farmers are donating surplus vegetables or foods. And the thing is, no farmer, [especially those facing one or more forms of systemic oppression], can afford to do that.”
It was during this time that Lowe—a fundraiser for a community garden that supported an under-resourced elementary school in the city—began to ponder his own upbringing and further understand that the area’s food system in its current state is fundamentally flawed.
“This made me realize that I had a different experience growing up. I had access, and the kids I worked with didn't know that the tomato that they're using for meat sauce came in from the dirt—not just the corner store.” Lowe shared.
For his expertise in the Niagara Falls and greater Niagara County food system and his gift of community building, Lowe was asked to participate on the Regional Advisory Council the WNY Regional Food System Initiative, now known as Food Future WNY.
“I think it’s a great initiative, and the sky’s the limit with what we can accomplish,” Lowe said. “The right people are around the table.”
At the core of what guides his work both in the NFLFAP and for Food Future WNY is the crucial focus on grassroots representation and leadership by those who are a part of the community it affects—especially those who face systemic exclusion and oppression.
He shared, “If [the food system] doesn’t represent the people it’s supposed to serve, it’s going to start prioritizing profits over people. Then, there’s no difference between the current food system and the one we’re working toward.”
Select quotes have been edited for clarity.
When most of us look at a cheese stick, we simply think of a kid's snack. However, for Chris Noble, a cheese stick tells a very different story about harnessing the power of partnerships and creativity to create a sustainable new product line.
Chris' cheese story starts with the cows at his multi-generational family business, Noblehurst Farms, in Livingston County, New York. The cows are fed by grain grown on their land. The milk from those cows, and 7 other family-owned farms Noblehurst has partnered with, is then processed in their Creamery, which is powered by an anaerobic digester with the waste from those very cows, to create Craigs Creamery Cheese.
Clearly seeing the powerful impact of that collective effort, Chris accepted an invitation in 2020 to join the Regional Advisory Council (RAC) for Food Future WNY, a 9-county planning effort to strengthen the region's food system to achieve resilience, equity, strong economic performance, and reduced food insecurity. Chris saw this as an opportunity to connect with other leaders in the food system with different life experiences.
"By bringing together different players with different perspectives, we are seeing things differently and our work is blazing new trails. For me, I was able to make important connections with fellow council members such as Alex Wright in Buffalo and Chris Hartman at Headwater in Rochester. I've learned so much about diversity and equity by having producers, buyers, and users of products in the same room for discussions," said Chris.
Chris admits that as a farmer, you can tend to be insular and being a part of the RAC and the Working Group really broadened his horizons.
"I really hope that some of the ideas and solutions we are coming up with are funded and blossom. We must drive this effort forward in a way that's smart, cost-effective and sustainable for our region's food future," said Chris.
This storytelling project was made possible through funding from the WNY Foundation
When you think about all the roles a chef plays in the kitchen, from the prep work and planning to overseeing and executing a vision, you could consider Kimberly LaMendola one of the chefs for Food Future Western New York (FFWNY). Given that some of her earliest memories were in a kitchen cooking with her grandparents, it should come as no surprise that she took on a co-facilitator role in launching the collective work of FFWNY to build the sustainable food system we all aspire to have in our region.
"I grew up spending time with both sets of grandparents and watched how they harvested their food whether through growing or hunting. They were very resourceful. The meals we shared together around the table meant a lot to me. To this day, I take the time to prepare a meal and sit down to enjoy it," said Kimberly LaMendola, Regional Food Systems Manager at New York Sustainable Agriculture Working Group (NYSAWG).
Kimberly manages her backyard farm with 12 raised beds that produced over 20 different varieties of veggies last year.
In 2023, she and her wife are adding a flock of laying hens to their homestead.
Her road to the FFWNY work took a few turns along the way. Originally working in the health and human services field, she felt a calling back to her agricultural roots, specifically understanding all that goes into growing food for a group of people. However, that major didn't exist at the time, so she created her own degree in community and rural development at Empire State College and then earned a certificate from Colorado State in sustainable food systems. She launched her new career in the planning department at the Seneca Nation of Indians and then joined Southern Tier West Regional Planning and Development Board 11 years ago.
When the WNY COVID-19 Community Response Fund decided to address the food system challenges, Kimberly's name kept coming up as an important person to talk to about how to lift the effort off the ground.
The Western New York Regional Food System Initiative, now known as Food Future WNY, launched in January 2021 and Kimberly's first task as co-facilitator was participating in interviews with potential consulting partners for the effort and SCALE, a four-person national team was hired for the collective effort. Over the next 18 months, SCALE engaged more than 70 regional food system leaders in a Regional Advisory Council and five issue-specific Working Groups to create a report that detailed actionable ideas to move the regional food system effort forward.
With the comprehensive report now complete and funding in place, the New York Sustainable Agriculture Working Group (NYSAWG), an affiliate of Southern Tier West Regional Planning and Development Board, is charting the course forward to see through the recommendations. To learn more, visit FoodFutureWNY.org.
For more information:
Food Future WNY
Fresh Local WNY
This storytelling project was made possible through funding from the WNY Foundation