So You Want to Find a Food Internship: A Job-Seeking Guide
A sustainable dining expert, deluged by eager job applicants, explains how to find the ideal food-world opportunity
The flood of newly-polished resumes and enthusiastic inquiries for a summer internship or full-time job is a telltale sign that a new year has arrived. I hate saying no but the fact is that ours is a culinary company. To work in the field of "sustainable, local food"—requested by undergraduates and mid-career jobseekers alike—one has to be a chef, cook, or café manager. The proof that a company really places a real value on food from owner-operated, small, local producers is that there aren't lots of sourcing jobs in the corporate office. That's what our chefs do in the communities where they work. But I'm unsatisfied responding without fruitful suggestions, so I turned to a talented and varied group of food professionals for ideas.
Volunteering for an organization in which one would hope to be employed is a time-honored approach in any non-profit field.
Besides volunteering to gain experience, participating in campus food issues and, of course, becoming a chef, what other thoughts could I share to help guide our next wave of food advocates? Here are some of my favorites:
1. The Congressional Hunger Center (www.hungercenter.org) offers two fellowship programs, one domestic and one international. The focus is on anti-poverty and anti-hunger work, but with a lot of opportunity to focus on food (in)security on both grassroots and policy levels, according to a current fellow who responded to my query. She further pointed out that the one-year domestic program accepts 20 fellows per year, and provides a more-than-adequate living stipend with excellent health care: "The program provides wonderful networking opportunities within the food security world and very enriching training on policy, advocacy, anti-racism, and food security." Joining FoodCorps (http://www.food-corps.org/), an offshoot of AmeriCorps, is another option if setting up school gardens is your passion.
2. Two websites are specifically dedicated to helping job seekers. Sustainable Food Jobs (http://sustainablefoodjobs.wordpress.com) posts job listings from organizations, farms, and restaurants, and also identifies related educational programs. Katherine Gustafson wrote about SFJ on Change.org : "You know a movement has really arrived when there's an entire Web site dedicated to jobs in that area." Good Food Jobs (www.GoodFoodJobs.com) also lists jobs, hosts a blog with career advice, and profiles people. The founders do lots of talks and panels providing job advice. On their weekly newsletter they answer common job and career related questions. Idealist (www.idealist.org) was also recommended.
3. Become a farmer. What better way to contribute to changing how people appreciate what they eat? Kellogg Food & Society Fellow Fred Bahnson wrote me: "We need far more people on the land than we currently have. The apprenticeship model is really the best way to learn any trade or craft, and farming is no exception. Every state has farms doing this. It just takes asking at your local farmers market to find out who hosts interns." I've met a lot of farmers in their thirties recently—many of them taking over from their parents—and it's very encouraging. They're exploring new ways of doing what their parents never questioned. But if farming isn't your inheritance, an internship or apprenticeship is a likely place to start. Some sites exist to help new farmers succeed including the delightful www.thegreenhorns.net, www.serveyourcountryfood.net, and www.farmschool.org.
The USDA also has an Alternative Farming Systems Information Center and last year posted an extensive state-by-state directory of Educational and Training Opportunities in Sustainable Agriculture (http://www.nal.usda.gov/afsic/pubs/edtr/EDTR2009.shtml).
4. Related fields. Lora Lea Misterly of the wonderful Quillisascut Farm in Washington State (http://quillisascut.com) suggested nutrition-dietitian training. "I can see a need for more public schools to take this angle to supporting healthy foods, mix it up with sustainable local foods and it is a dynamite recipe for future job seekers. I also think school garden educators/community garden educators." The fact is that we don't really know what the shape of the future food system will be over the next 40 to 50 years. With more and more state and local governments taking policy positions on local food security, careers may develop within urban planning focusing on food security and helping build community access to healthier foods and protecting or developing farms.
5. Volunteering on a local level. Don't discount volunteering if you can afford it, because it demonstrates passion that employers look for and will help you explore facets of your interest. Volunteering to teach may help educate the teacher. Volunteering for an organization in which one would hope to be employed is a time-honored approach in any non-profit field. (Note: It is generally illegal in the for-profit field, however.)
6. Enjoy your passions. You never know what you will learn or who you will meet. Sites are cropping up everywhere to inspire visions and teach skills in gardening, intensive backyard farming, and small-scale aquaponics. An explorer could get lost among the rich links these sites provide. Becoming a member of a community-supported agriculture program, or helping out with its administration, will supplement other marketable skills and help candidates stand out when competing for jobs in food-related organizations. Bob Waldrop told me that he got started by changing his diet and eating locally as much as possible, and that practice eventually led to the founding of the Oklahoma Food Cooperative. My own experience is similar. Starting with a passion, and figuring out the practical realities of your chosen passion, is the first step for many.
More and more schools are offering undergraduate and masters programs in food systems and sustainable agriculture or "sustainability" writ large. Besides inspiring new academics, it's not clear how long-lasting these programs will be—as with any new discipline. I'll admit my bias toward specifics skills training rather than taking a job as a "sustainability coordinator," as several applicants have asked me to create for them. (We don't have any.) I think these positions may well be a short-lived phenomenon. Sustainability is becoming embedded in operations, where it belongs, rather than seen as an ancillary support position. How can one intelligently make change without understanding the processes that need to be refined? Along those lines, a prospective reformer might want to start a revolution from within and apply to "mainstream" food producing companies, learn about their sourcing and distribution from the inside (but not marketing). Who better to influence than colleagues who already respect what you do?