Staff Highlight: Jamie Levato

Staff Highlight: Jamie Levato, Education Director (interviewed by Lee Anne Albritton)

Provide us with a brief description of your position at PFP.
I run PFP’s Education Department, and I work with Ellie Limpert, our Education Manager, to set the tone and agenda for our programs which are mainly focused on promoting healthy eating, gardening, and sustainable agriculture.

My role involves building relationships with all of our community partners, school personnel, PTAs, and other nonprofits. I coordinate our schedule and plan much of our professional development workshops.

What types of activities do you schedule?
On site field trips for school classes and other groups, school garden visits where PFP educators teach kids in their own gardens, cooking in the classroom workshops, family cooking workshops, and educational sessions at after school programs.

We also provide professional development for teachers and community educators at our three-day Summer Institute Using Gardens to Teach training for educators. We’ve expanded our offerings and now provide several other trainings throughout the year on-site and at regional conferences. In addition, we offer workshops on gardening, herbs, cooking, seed saving, and self-sufficiency for community members at the farm and at other sites in the community.

What's your background?
I grew up in Central Islip, Long Island. We had a garden in our back yard, with a nice strawberry patch, tomatoes, lettuce, peppers, and green beans and we had 16 chickens. We also had ducks and rabbits, which were more like pets, and a Mulberry tree that we would climb to harvest big colanders full of bright purple berries that my mom would make into Italian ices. I guess I fell in love with fresh hyper-local food as a child because it was so tasty.

What brought you to PFP?
My background is as a teacher. I went to SUNY New Paltz and got an MS in Literacy Education. While in college, I started gardening at the Gardens for Nutrition and fell in love w/ community gardening because of the interaction and sharing with my garden neighbors. Right after college, I worked for the Mid-Hudson Migrant Education Program working with children of migrant farm workers. Then I started working for Poughkeepsie City School District as a home-bound instructor teaching kids who were suspended or on medical leave. Those positons connected me to the Poughkeepsie community. When I saw a position that connected my educational background and my interests, I was thrilled at the possibility of teaching children through gardening and cooking.

What do you love most about your job?
I can’t choose one thing. I love the variety that I get to do, one day I’m teaching a group of kids, the next day I’m writing a grant, other days I’m training interns, leading a workshop for educators, developing curriculum. I really love the fact that we have a wide community impact because we’re working with youth, families, educators, and other community organizations. PFP’s community-based approach is exciting and powerful to me. Recently, I have been doing a lot of presentations around the region. I actually really enjoy speaking in front of groups. Many people fear public speaking more than death, but I fear death more than public speaking!

What do you love most about PFP?
I love our really strong team and the way we work in many different facets under the umbrella of food justice, providing nutritious local food to families through our CSA, and others with limited access.  I love working with our many community partners and other local and regional organizations to make food systems more equitable.

There are so many program and outreach activities that the Education Department presently offers, what has changed from when you started as a part-timer in 2010?
I was first hired as a part-time seasonal employee for 15 hours/week. Now, I work year-round and full time.  

When I started, we were primarily responding to requests – five field trips for the school year, and working with a few local summer camps, Green Teen, and Hudson River Housing’s River Haven youth shelter.

I was asked to build a partnership with Poughkeepsie schools, instead of just responding to requests, so that kids in Poughkeepsie could visit on a regular basis. That meant building relationships with principals, teachers, school secretaries, other staff, and administrators. We weren’t doing as much in the schools then, and there were very few school gardens. Now we’re in the schools beginning in February and continuing through December. When I started, we hosted two interns from Vassar during semester. In 2016, we hosted 24 interns from Vassar, the CIA, Russell Sage, SUNY New Paltz, Poughkeepsie Day School, and Poughkeepsie High School. We’ve also expanded the Seeds of Food System teen program, which used to just be a summer program, but now we’ve expanded it to a weekly six-month program. Visiting PFP is now part of growing up in Poughkeepsie!

I know you're very involved with social justice activism outside of PFP, what are some of those projects? 
Primarily, I’m working with several organizations on racial justice issues on the local and state level. What’s very exciting is that many of our local and regional farming organizations are committing to work towards racial justice in the food system.

Why do you consider racial justice so important?
Because we are all better off when there’s justice for everyone. Our entire society loses out on the human potential of our neighbors, when institutional racism limits opportunities for people of color. For many white people in our country, institutional racism can be virtually invisible, you can be oblivious if you don’t pay really close attention.

What do you do for leisure when you're not at PFP or saving the world?
I enjoy reading, baking, preserving food, gardening, hiking, going to movies, and traveling.

Anything we might not necessarily expect to know about you?
I recently started indoor rock climbing. I’m just a beginner and definitely not ready for outdoor climbing, yet.