As a student in the College’s sustainable food systems program, Alexandra Gross found the sweet spot: the place where her scholarship and her work life become indistinguishable.
As the communications and healthy living program manager for the non-profit organization Simply Smiles, she splits her time between her native Connecticut, where the Simply Smiles offices are based, and project locations on the Cheyenne River Reservation in South Dakota and in Oaxaca, Mexico.
She’ll spend five to six months a year living and working on in the town of La Plant on the western side of the Lakota Reservation, supervising a community garden and health and wellness programs. The Reservation is roughly the size of Connecticut within the state of South Dakota. The experience led her to the inescapable conclusion that healthy, local food means more than just good nutrition – for the Lakota, it is an important element in restoration of cultural traditions and rebuilding individual self-worth and communal pride.
“Food can be a powerful tool for social change,” Alex says. “When you put people on a reservation and give them historically and traditionally unfamiliar foods like wheat flour and cooking oil, you set in motion a cycle of oppression. For generations these people have been cut off from the foods they used to depend on.”
For her GMC capstone experience, Alex created a resource hub and a photo essay on native food sovereignty called “In Search of Wild Turnips,” which she self-published on her website speakwithyourfood.com.
The wild (or “prairie” turnip) is a sacred, ceremonial and now somewhat elusive wild food. The title of Alex’s blog represents not just the reestablishment of this particular root vegetable but a metaphor for restoring an entire food system.
With Simply Smiles, Alex leads the formation of a community garden in the town of La Plant, complete with a 72-foot long greenhouse, raised beds, a comprehensive compost system, a small, hydroponic growing system, and classes in gardening, cooking and native food education. By 2015, she was helping the children in La Plant run their own farm stands, which will expand—along with production—during the 2016 season.
Her interest in raising food dates back to her childhood growing up in rural Connecticut, where her mom maintained small vegetable and herb gardens. She gravitated to English and journalism in college, graduating summa cum laude from Fairfield University. She became deeply interested in food policy, becoming a vegetarian and working on local farms during her college years.
“It was a great way to get connected to the local food movement. When I graduated in the midst of the Great Recession, I had no problem finding work,” she said.
She also began sharing her observations by writing for E-Magazine. Alex explored a graduate education in food policy and was accepted to New York University, but it was a residential program and she balked at the price tag. “More than anything, I was also drawn to the fact that the faculty of Green Mountain College walked the walk: not only were they educators, but they were food growers and hands-on leaders and activists in the sustainable food movement.”
She describes a moment while engaged in a reading for the “Bioregional Theory and the Foodshed” class taught by prof. Laird Christensen. She was working at the Cheyenne River Reservation at the time. “I realized ‘Hey, I’m really living this.’ That class was really my guide to living and working on the Reservation and in understanding the vital need for place-based context and research.”