Featured image: I love the mountains! A view from my bedroom window in Quito.
My great study abroad adventure began with two weeks in the United States, traipsing around the state of Georgia. Along with the 17 other students on the program, we ventured from the big city of Atlanta to the small college town of Athens, out to the rural farms of Albany, and finally back to Atlanta.
From Atlanta, we flew to Quito, Ecuador, where we have spent the past week diving deeper into issues regarding the focus of our program: food systems. Each day is filled with panels, classes, and site visits, and I feel slightly overwhelmed as I try to compose a cohesive picture of my life this semester. I go to sleep each night grateful to be participating in critical thinking and engaging experiences with an incredibly thoughtful group of fellow students; I feel that every waking moment is a moment of learning and reflection. Rather than try to encapsulate the entirety of my experiences thus far, I’ll share with you some highlights.
In rural Georgia, we visited three vastly different farming models. The first, White Oak Pastures, is a family owned livestock farm practicing regenerative agriculture. Contrary to conventional methods, the owners of White Oak Pastures graze their animals outside on open land, humanely slaughter in their own USDA approved processing facility, and focus heavily on development of soil organic matter and environmental health. I was particularly intrigued by their zero-waste approach; all parts of the animal get used: blood goes into compost, dried tracheas become dog chews, leather becomes handbags, and fat becomes tallow candles and moisturizers.
We got a glimpse into a different perspective on farming and land use at Resora, an old southern plantation that is now run by civil rights activist Shirley Sherrod. In addition to a tour of the property, featuring groves of pecan trees and a cypress-lined pond, Ms. Sherrod shared with us the ugly history of institutional racism in the USDA and the struggles she and other Black landowners faced and continue to face in obtaining land and developing farms.
Our third visit, to Lewis Taylor Farms, was a stark contrast to both White Oak Pastures and Resora. One of the largest privately-owned produce farms in the Southeast, Lewis Taylor farms grows more than 6500 acres each year, and it was an eye-opening experience to see agriculture on this scale in person. Our visit touched on many facets of the farm’s operations, including immigrant labor, food waste, consumer preferences, and food safety regulations.
After our brief survey of agriculture in Georgia, we are now exploring food systems in Ecuador. Our most recent site visit was to an urban agriculture project partnered with AGRUPAR, a program initiated by the municipality of Quito. The program helps manage farms and gardens throughout Quito, in addition to operating markets–called bioferias– where farmers can sell their surplus products. Our time was spent at a relatively new project located in a public park in Quito’s old city. We got our hands dirty planting tomatoes, cauliflower, beets, and more in newly composted beds.
On the flip side of agriculture and experiential learning, I’ve also been relishing in eating new foods! The two weeks in Georgia offered an opportunity to taste Southern classics such as grits, fried okra, and collards, but my favorite meal was a dish from Trinidad called doubles. The dish was vaguely similar two tacos in that it consisted of two fry bread shells with a filling and garnish. The fry bread was pillowy and rich but a little crunchy on the outside, but the real highlight for me was the filling: a delicious chickpea concoction full of warming spices and deep flavors. Paired with a a trio of sauces (tamarind, cilantro, and chile pepper), plus a sprinkling of pickled cucumbers, this lunch was an exciting experience for my tastebuds. No doubt the context of the meal also factored into my enjoyment: we had spent the morning mulching on a community garden in a rainy downpour, and the hot food was a welcome reward.
Ecuador has also offered ample opportunities for novel food experiences. I am basking in the variety of fruits to try: small, tart, orange husk cherries; various seed-filled fruits such as taxo, granadilla, and passionfruit; and intriguing textures in guanabana (soursop) and babaco. The most striking flavor sensation thus far has been chirimoya, a tetradhedral green fruit with creamy white flesh inside. The creaminess of the fruit is complemented by an amazing burst of sweet tropical flavors reminiscent of a bag of starbursts, but without the artificial tang of candy. Delicious!