I get asked to speak to a lot of groups. Sometimes, I’m not too shabby at it. Other days, my public speaking skills could use a little work (aka preparation).
At today’s Urban Roots’ community lunch, I got schooled.
I was there to say a few words about the nonprofit farm that educates and empowers Austin high school students through sustainable agriculture. I’ve been fascinated by this group since it launched seven years ago, and thanks to these annual community lunches that they’ve hosted every summer, I have had the chance to visit the farm, meet some of the participants and watch just how well this program works.
I said a few things off the top of my head about why I admire the organization, and though I think I got my point across, it was a "B" performance at best.
It’s easy to read a phrase like, "uses sustainable agriculture to transform the lives of young people," with a little bit of cynicism.
I mean, how much can one’s life really be transformed by working in a field or farmers market? Some people simply call that a job, and a hard, thankless one at that.
But every time I meet the teens chosen to participate in this program, I’m reminded of how true that statement can be. Jam Sanitchat of Thai Fresh was the chef instructor for today’s lunch, and she worked with about 10 crew members at the kitchen inside the Sustainable Food Centers’ new headquarters to prepare a meal for about 40 guests.
The food, as always, was prepared with produce grown on the 3.5-acre farm in East Austin, which to date has produced more than 150,000 pounds of produce with 40 percent donated local soup kitchens and food pantries. The other 60 percent of the food is sold through either Urban Roots’ community-supported agriculture program or their booth at the farmers market.
Can you imagine being 14 years old and running a booth at a farmers market or leading a group of adult CSA subscribers who have come to the farm to volunteer?
Yes, farming education programs like this teach kids math, science, how to run a business and other syllabus-worthy subjects, but what struck me today was how personable and well-spoken these high schoolers become under the tutelage of Urban Roots and its staff.
Every year, the youngsters greet guests at the entrance, happily answer their questions while serving them food in the buffet line and chat easily with them at the communal picnic tables. They are self-aware, focused and nonplussed by this interaction with adults, many of whom work in the food economy or are notable figures or even elected officials in the community.
Today, two 14-year-olds, Quinn and Karen, spoke to the group about how they got involved in Urban Roots and what they’ve enjoyed about working on the farm. Instead of mumbling, tripping on words or ideas or giving one-sentence answers, they spoke with grace and confidence that even I sometimes lack when address a crowd. They both painted a rich picture of their experience, letting one another speak without interrupting and answering questions that were peppered at them from the audience. They were endearing in their honesty and made us laugh with their quips and funny anecdotes.
In a moment that stirred this storytellers’ heart, a young man named Jose, when it was his turn to talk, chose not to talk about his own experience at all.
He worked closely with Sanitchat during the cooking session earlier in the day, and he’d taken the time to ask her questions about her life that led her to running Thai Fresh on Mary Street in South Austin. He introduced himself and explained that he wanted to take a minute to tell Jam’s story.
He then proceeded, without notes or any hint of anxiety, to tick off details about her journey to becoming a restaurant owner in Austin that even I’d forgotten after years of knowing and working with Jam.
Three or four seamless minutes later, he concluded — in perfect public speaking tone — by asking the audience to show their gratitude for the work and time that Sanitchat had contributed to their cause.
Executive director Max Elliott, who should get a lot of credit for building such a multi-faceted program, knew Jose and his peers has really knocked it out of the park.
"There’s your dessert," he said, knowing full well that the adults in attendance were in awe of what they’d just seen.
A good reminder that the transformative power of food often has nothing to do with food at all.