An Interview with Meighen Lovelace of National Farmer’s Union
April 13, 2017
Meighen Lovelace currently works at the National Farmer’s Union in Washington, DC. A resident of Eagle County, CO, Meighan is a member of the Rocky Mountain Farmer’s Union in Colorado, and the founder of a fresh produce farm on-site at Salvation Army Vail. The Alliance to End Hunger’s Nathan Magrath and Madeline Cole sat down with Meighen to learn about her story and perspective on food advocacy.
In my brief research, it looks like you have quite a range of experiences that really got you into an interest in food and activism around food. Would you be willing to talk to us a bit about this?
I grew up in Detroit, Michigan and often witnessed what seemed like a normal experience to me—not having access to fresh healthy food. There were not many grocery stores around, and there was not really any kind of public transportation to get to grocery stores with fresh, healthy food. So, the natural solution for most people in my community was to grow their own food. It seemed so common to me that I did not really understand that it was not common everywhere. I would say that this was my introduction to understanding that access to fresh and healthy food was not something that was readily available to everyone, and it was also my introduction to the fact that the solution was right in front of me. Coming out of Detroit and going to other communities, it seemed to me the logical next step is that when you do not have fresh healthy food, we’ll find a place and a way to grow it.
And then it looks like you moved out to Colorado. Can you talk a little bit about your experience once you got there?
I originally came out to be a ski bum like many people in the area. I thought somehow that would just be the life, right? When I decided to have a family, I realized how difficult it was to raise a family in a small and resource-limited community. It was much more difficult to feed my children than I imagined, so I went to the food bank.
As a child I remember waiting in line for my mom to get food coupons, and being part of the free lunch program at school. As a kid this was all just a part of life, and suddenly it was a part of my life again—kids on free and reduced lunch, going to the food bank, applying for food stamps, and getting WIC. Throughout my childhood and adult experiences, I initially did not understand the depth of the stigma that surrounds these programs. I would tell people, “Oh, you know what’s great? This program called WIC. It helps me get food for my kids, and even health checkups for them!” It was not until I started talking about my experience that people responded like, “Oh no, you’re not supposed to tell people that you do that stuff.” And I had to ask myself ‘why?’
I also began to discover drawbacks around how these programs worked for families. I was and am grateful to have English as my first language, as well as a college education, so that I could navigate those systems. I started to think about what my experience would be like if this was not the case. I myself have experiences with being rolled off SNAP, and needing to work with individuals at both the county and state level to figure out why programs were not really working in an optimal way. It became clear to me that I could not be the only one asking these questions. I also knew it was not just my community facing these issues. While I found myself navigating those systems personally, I also found myself becoming an advocate not only for these systems, but also for the people dealing with them. I started going to meetings and speaking with legislators and sharing my story, so people could begin to understand what was happening and what we could do to make it better. I also hoped that I could start to normalize some of these conversations so that it would not be shameful to be a mother on WIC…or a mother using SNAP…or a mother with kids on free and reduced lunch. I began to work in earnest with organizations like Family Leadership Training Institute. For example, we worked with several teachers to advocate for school breakfast in our community. Then we did the same thing with different community leaders to introduce a summer food service program. These and other things changed the face of our community in so many ways.
Another thing that drove me in an advocacy direction was the first time I went to the [Salvation Army Vail] food bank in Colorado and realized, “Oh my gosh, there’s no fresh food here!” I chewed on a response to this issue for a while. I also brought this up with the Salvation Army food bank director. Sometime later, when I came back to the food bank, the director said to me, “I remember you. You talked about fresh food.” She pointed to a plot of land outside the building. “Look out there. Let’s start a farm.” We just nodded at each other and I said, “Okay. Let’s start a farm.” And we did. She was an awesome mentor as we got the project up and running…helping me navigate legal processes, gain buy-in from necessary stakeholders, etc. I was also able to call upon my memory of being a farmer growing up, and that guided me as well. Michigan and Colorado are very different when it comes to farming, so I went to the CSU [Colorado State University] Extension and took some classes.
We started our first community garden, right there on-site at Salvation Army using their land. From the beginning, we knew we did not want this to be my journey, but the community’s journey. The garden was set up so that nobody had to pay for anything, and we offered plots to the clients that came in. Clients could either get fresh food that we grew along with other donated items; or they can come to a class, get involved, learn how to grow food, and obtain the space to start a garden. Clients loved it, but there was also demand for fresh food in the winter; so we decided we would put up a greenhouse. Again, through the mentorship of the director of the Salvation Army, I learned how to write grants and how to navigate those processes. We collaborated with both public and private entities to get money from the county and from some local businesses, and we got our four-season greenhouse up and running. The success of the garden inspired us to introduce other programming around it—including classes such as “Growing Gardeners,” which invites children and their parents onto the farm one day a week. Everything is free. While the kiddos are doing an activity, the parents can ask the master gardener or the horticulturist questions to further their own farms. There is also a K-12 horticulture program for—for lack of a better term—“at-risk youth.” There is adult education as well, which often works with CSU Extension, to teach people how to preserve their food and how to save seeds, including cooking classes… and other things for the community. Informally, the garden has really become a sort of a community gathering place.
What brought you to Washington DC and National Farmers Union?
I joined Farmers Union in my state of Colorado—the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union—as a farmer. I realized soon after joining that there is a solid social justice component within the Union that really stood out to me. I read our policy book and I realized how much we speak to issues of food access, and to the right to a quality of life that deserves respect for every person in the United States. I encourage you to read the preamble of National Farmers Union policy book. It is only about two pages long and it really does convey why the Union spoke to me. I realized that this is a place where we have a heritage, we have a history, and we have always been at the forefront of advocating for human rights—not just for farmers, but for everyone. And so for me, it made sense to be a part of the Union.
I was lucky enough to go through a fellowship program with Rocky Mountain Farmers Union in 2015. During this time, we were brought to the offices in Washington DC where we met the NFU President, Roger Johnson. I saw all of what NFU believes exemplified, not just within the Union, but through our President. I decided I would like to come here and learn from the organization, and then bring what I learned back to my community. It seemed very timely to come right now with CNR [Child Nutrition Reauthorization] and the limbo it is in. And of course with the interest in the Farm Bill and SNAP, I realized it was a pathway for me to learn from my organization and to learn from the team here how we can be the most effective advocates, and to tell the story about why nutrition is so important. It really is a human rights issue.
I am happy to meet with legislators and I am happy to meet with anyone who wants to hear the story of someone who has been through these programs…who understands firsthand what it feels like to put food in your pocket instead of in your mouth. I have been in the subcommittee hearings and what I hear from legislators—and this is not at all disingenuous—is, “Help me understand why this is a thing. I do not get it. I want to get it. Please tell me.” And so I am here to tell my story.
What is next for you? Where do you see yourself going from here?
I want to get back on the land. It is hard being a farmer and being off the land. I know that the farm is in great hands with Emma [the farm manager while Meighen is in DC] and I want her to grow there. I want Emma to take that and to make it hers, and to bring other people in and mentor them. For me, it is time for me to farm elsewhere. I have actually received a couple of requests, so we’ll see where those go. But I’m open to helping out wherever I’m needed if at all possible.
I also want to share what I have learned here with organizations that are working in Colorado to do a lot of hunger outreach, including with Hunger Free Colorado. I will work with LiveWell Colorado, which is another non-profit that works to address issues of health and wellness. And of course I will continue my work with Rocky Mountain Farmers Union—however they need me and in whatever capacity they need me—so that we can all work together and keep this good fight going.