Rachael Brugger is a volunteer and board member with Faith Feeds, a gleaning organization that seeks to alleviate hunger in the Bluegrass through the provision of fresh fruits and vegetables. She moved to Kentucky in 2009 to work as senior associate web editor for Hobby Farms and Hobby Farm Home magazines, and on weekends, she moonlights as a flautist for Lexington’s March Madness Marching Band.
As a newbie gardener, her container garden has now grown to incorporate a raised-bed garden, where she grows basil, rosemary, cukes, heirloom tomatoes, peppers, Swiss chard, butternut squash and her beloved Meyer lemon tree, which gave her two lemons in its first year. She can’t wait to one day have her own piece of land to grow the majority of her own food (and raise chickens), but until that day comes, she is indebted to her CSA farm, which keeps her rolling in fresh, local fare.
I was introduced to Rachael through my great friend Shawn Burns of Farm2Lex. He knew we would be kindred spirits, and he was right. I think Rachael and I could sit and talk farms for days. Writing, too. Thanks to this generous woman for agreeing to answer some questions for the blog!
1. Tell us about your path to sustainability and the local food movement.
I grew up in a home where family dinners were mandatory. It seems so weird to think of this now, in a time period where sitting around the table with loved ones is a “movement.” I like to tease my mom that she created a monster when she always insisted that I take at least one bite of my meal before deciding I didn’t like it. It’s such a small thing, but it sticks out as a kick-off to my journey with food.
Food is such an interesting thing to me because it’s not only something that nourishes our bodies but it’s something that connects us to our culture, and as I’m learning more and more through my work that it is a powerful instrument in social change.
I really began to understand the beauty and power of local food systems during my college years in Athens, Ohio, when I frequented the worker-owned Mexican-inspired restaurant Casa Nueva. After a childhood in suburbia, the notion that a business could be run completely democratically blew my mind—not to mention have delicious results in the form homemade salsas and burritos featuring seasonal ingredients.
From there, my journey with food continued and I got hyper-local with my food choices, and learned what “local” meant halfway across the world in Cambodia, where I delighted in the local fare of fresh-off-the-tree coconuts, durian and rambutans, softshell crabs freshly caught from the Gulf of Thailand, and (wait for it) fried tarantulas. (Yes, Mom, I will try anything once.)
Now that I’ve made my way to Kentucky, my love affair with food has only intensified. I support the local Elmwood Stock Farm by purchasing a CSA share each year and I’m even learning the joys (and tribulations of) of growing food myself and making more conscious purchasing choices when I’m not able to grow it myself. I, along with the other folks at Faith Feeds, am also burdened with the problem of how to ensure all people, no matter their economic status, have access to fresh food to nourish their bodies.
Where I am now, though, I feel like I’m just brushing the tip of the iceberg of what this all means. As I’m writing this, I’m still having a hard time putting it into words (even though people out there reading this may have already figured it out). Food is such a driving force in our health and in our expression of who we are as a nation, it seems only natural that it’s become a catalyst in furthering sustainability practices. I still have a lot to learn from the farmers who grow these amazing products that we put into our bodies—they are the ones who really understand how the soil, sun air and water directly affect food. But if we can try to understand that only a little, can we help but want to take care of its growing environment?
2. What experiences led you to where you are today?
The answer to the question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” came to me at a fairly early age, when I knew that I wanted to work for a magazine. It all seemed to come together very easily in the way you might expect: girl works on the high school yearbook, girl goes to a good journalism school, girl nails an awesome internship. But then come graduation and time to enter the real world, it stopped being so easy. The economy was bad and the publishing industry was (and still is) taking a hard hit, and girl finds herself working as a barista. Instead of asking the hard-hitting questions I expected to as a journalist, I found myself asking, “Do you want room for cream?”
This was such a humbling experience, and I completely empathize with others who find themselves in similar situations. But it taught me a very important lesson, one I cling to today: You have to make the most of every opportunity that comes your way. No matter what life throws at you, if you cling to this, I firmly believe you will be OK.
As I made iced coffee drinks for teenagers and caramel macchiatos for over-caffeinated adults, I got little nudges that lead me to where I am today. (Call it what you will, I think it’s God.) My first nudge pushed me over to California, where, oddly enough, I interned for the company I work for today. But I decided California was too far from my family in Ohio, so I returned home only to be shoved just a little bit farther, oh, you know, halfway across to the world. That was the year I spent in Cambodia. I was there to work at a university, but pretty much spent my time learning to keep cool while sweating out my knees, to balance sidesaddle on a motorbike with four other people in tow, and to escape the stares of children and street vendors when I stood a foot taller and several shades paler than everyone around me. Then, as if things were perfectly arranged for me, I arrived here in Kentucky three months after I returned to the U.S.
If you told me right out of college that this is the journey I would take, I would have thought you were crazy. But as I’ve learned through all of this, life is full of unexpected surprises. I had dreams of moving to a big city, like Boston or Chicago, but here I am in Kentucky discovering my passions and learning the meaning of true community. It’s truly a blessing how much life’s twists and turns can open your eyes to wonderful things outside your original “plan.”
3. Your job exposes you to a lot of different farms! What sets a farm apart as unique or interesting to you?
I’m a health nut, so I love when a farmer realizes that the food that he or she grows is medicine and treats their crop with that kind of care. For example, I recently visited a biodynamic farm, which means that everything is grown according to natural cycles—no chemical or even organic applications are used. Even the bees on site were feral, meaning their hives are self-supporting and receive no man-made foods to increase production. The herbs and foods on that farm are all grown for their healing properties: yarrow that can be pressed on a wound to stop bleeding, lavender that can be made into a tea for headaches, peppermint that can be steeped into a bath for a fever, etc. The farmer acknowledged that we, just like those crops, are part of a natural cycle and all these things can come together in harmony. I guess this can be taken to sound sort of mystic, but it’s not. Studies have shown that the food we eat can be used to prevent—even reverse—some of our country’s leading diseases, like diabetes and heart disease, so I think it’s ingenious when a farmer takes that information on as his or her core mission.
4. What have you enjoyed about living in Kentucky?
Kentucky has an ecclectic mix of beauty and culture with so many unique aspects you can’t find anywhere else: major points of American history, Bluegrass music, horse farms, comfort food, and the natural beauty of Appalachia. Everyone I’ve met here have so much to offer. It’s overwhelming at times, because I’m still young and trying to figure out the meaning of life and my purpose in it, but there’s passion oozing out of everyone I meet, and I find inspiration in that. To name just some of the people who are making Lexington and the state of Kentucky a place I’m learning to call home: the dedicated gleaners of Faith Feeds, the wacky musicians and hoopers of the March Madness Marching Band, crazy Cluck chicken keepers, and passionate rock climbers of the Red River Gorge. I’m so fortunate to know these people and grateful that at the end of the day, I’ve learned something from each of them about how to make the world a better place.
5. Living a more sustainable lifestyle is really all about the little changes that everyone can make. What are some specific things that you’ve done over time to improve?
Achieving a sustainable lifestyle is definitely a process, and for me that process started with connecting with the food I eat and doing a better job of intentionally seeking out food that supports the local economy and is grown in a way that’s healthy for the soil and the consumer. It’s meant learning what a CSA is and participating in one, succeeding and failing in growing food in pots on a apartment balcony, keeping a box of worms in my house to eat my kitchen scraps (ew, gross, right?).
But it’s also meant taking all the things I know about society and food—that we waste so much, that there are food deserts where people can’t walk to the store to buy an apple, that there are children that think chicken comes from a package in the grocery store—and using that information to make a difference in the community. There are a lot of great groups in Lexington working to fix these problems, and I’m fortunate to be serving with one of them: Faith Feeds. It’s crazy to think that something like 33 million tons of food is wasted every year in America, and yet 1 in 5 kids goes to bed hungry, not knowing where their next meal is coming from. At Faith Feeds, we are figuring out how to tackle those problems head on in Lexington. It’s an amazing group of people who give up their precious time (you know, the time none of us have), go to the farmers’ markets, farms and orchards, glean the food that would have otherwise been thrown in the trashcan because “it wasn’t pretty enough to sell,” and give it to people who may have otherwise been eating a 99-cent hamburger and fries or, worse, nothing at all.
6. Favorite Kentucky farm, Kentucky proud product, or Kentucky restaurant (can be more than one!)?
Oh goodness, how long of a list do you want!? I am absolutely in love with the local food selections in Kentucky. My go-to restaurants when I have out-town-visitors are Ouida Michael’s restaurants, Wallace Station and Windy Corner. Not only do the menus showcase the best of Kentucky products (have you had the lemon bars at Wallace Station?—happiness in pastry form!), the drives out to each restaurant allow you to drink in the gorgeous Lexington scenery. Of course, (speaking of drinks) I’ve enjoyed acquiring a taste for bourbon over the past three years I’ve lived here and, most recently, enjoyed tasting the new brews concocted by Lexington’s new microbreweries. I also have to give a shoutout to the many area farms and markets—Reed’s Valley Orchard, Berries on Bryan, Lexington Farmers’ Market, Bluegrass Farmers’ Market, Good Foods and many more—without whom the work that Faith Feeds does wouldn’t be possible. These people have generously donated so much of their produce (the current count for this year alone is nearly 29,000 pounds!) that people who would otherwise go hungry are now also able to partake in the wonderful food produced in this state!
7. Favorite fresh-from-the-garden meal or recipe?
My showstopper at potlucks is a recipe for sweet potato quesadillas. Boil and mash about four to five large sweet potatoes. Chop a small onion and two to three garlic cloves and sauté until translucent. To the onions and garlic, add a healthy dose of chili powder, cumin, marjoram, oregano and salt (to your tasting—I like a lot). Then add the potatoes to the spice mixture and heat. Spread about a 1/4 the mixture onto half of a tortilla, sprinkle with cheese, and fold over the tortilla. Repeat process until you run out of mixture. Coat tops of tortillas with olive oil, and bake at 350 degrees F for about 30 minutes, or until the tops are golden brown and the cheese is gooey. It’s easy, healthy and so delicious.
8. Favorite reads (can be related to the topics of farms/sustainability, etc. or not)?
I love nonfiction; however, my favorite books are the Anne of Green Gables series. When I was younger, I read the whole series during a trip to Anne’s home in Prince Edward Island, Canada. The spunky, intelligent heroine of those books was ahead of her time and a great role model for young girls, and it was a lot of fun to see the real-life setting of the book as I read.