Jackson, Mississippi is a long way from New York City. But for Upper West Sider Winnie Rubin, that distance spells opportunity.
Rubin knew early on she wanted to teach. Her elementary and high school education at the private Rudolf Steiner School narrowed the scope. “It was part of our curriculum in grades 3-12 to go to Hawthorne Valley Farm, a biodynamic and organic dairy and vegetable farm,” the 22 year old tells us. That lead her to a psychology and public health major at Bennington College in Vermont. “From studying and knowing I wanted to be an educator, I needed to combine food, health policy, gardening and physical education in one.” But how – and where could she put those skills and that education into practice?
Enter FoodCorps, a nationwide team of leaders that connects kids to real food by placing those leaders in limited-resource communities for a year of public service (1,700 hours). Rubin believed this to be her chance. “They accept 80 out of 1,000,” she says. “I’m honored I made the cut.”
Coming from New York City to the South was a choice for her. “I picked Jackson,” she says. But why? “It’s kind of selfish in a weird way, I guess. Being from such an urban, highly populated, really convenient city, I wanted to go somewhere I knew would be a struggle for me.” Rubin reasons it out: “If I’m going to do something so crazy, like change school food and school policy via a garden, this is the spot.” Learning of Mississippi’s “fattest state” status clarified why she’s here. “I’m in a place to make a change.”
Based out of Mississippi Road Map to Health Equity, seven Mississippi FoodCorps workers are assigned to local elementary and middle schools around the state. Rubin’s assignments, Pecan Park and Dawson, both in West Jackson, had gardens started last year by other FoodCorps members. “It’s my job to maintain them, and have a healthy harvest,” she says.
Rubin hopes hands on cooking demos with kids – and their caretakers – will help them learn where food comes from. “What children eat is so separate from what they know,” she believes. “They’ll eat french fries and not know potatoes came from soil. It’s all in the education.” She believes, though, the lesson starts at home. “Everyone is busy, but try to find time to grow something in the yard so kids can see where their food comes from.” Rubin hopes her lessons rub off on more than just her students. “I want it to be a whole family, whole community change.”
In Jackson for just three weeks, Rubin shares a home with other FoodCorps members in Fondren. “I was telling a friend today, it’s sort of like Manhattan,” she says. “It’s almost like an up-and-coming Williamsburg (an area of Brooklyn, New York.)” Her first Fondren After 5 was last week. “It was crazy to see music up and down the street. That doesn’t happen in the city! There’s never a whole town coming together to celebrate Thursday. Everyone knows each other here and that’s nice.”
Southern life will take some getting used to. “Things are slower,” she observes. “Coming from a hyper city, it’s a tough transition, but I’m learning to go with the flow.” She says, though, it’s not a bad thing. “It’s like gardening: things take time.”
And time is what it will take to see if this New Yorker stays for longer than her service year calls for. Rubin deferred from Colombia for graduate school. “It’s tricky,” she says. “If I feel I make an impact, it’d be strange to walk away. I’m going to try to do as much as I can to make me stay here.”