Tomia MacQueen recently joined PPS as the Food Systems Literacy Coordinator, a pilot position that the district hopes to establish permanently. She owns a farm, is credentialed as Master Gardener, and works 20 hours a week for PPS. We caught up with Mrs. MacQueen at the Modern Living kitchen in Princeton Middle School.
Welcome to PPS! Can you tell us about your background and interests?
I grew up in Detroit, and I got into backyard gardening when we were living in the suburbs outside of Detroit. I did a YouTube video on my journey with scarring alopecia that went viral, and it resulted in a long conversation about nutrition in the comments section. Ultimately, that led me to the field of nutrition, and that was the catalyst to grow the food that my family would eat. I’ve enjoyed working as an educator, as a farmer, and as a Master Gardener specializing in edible gardens. I am fortunate to be the owner of Wildflower Farm in Pennington, and I’ve been an edible gardens consultant for the last 14 years. I’m a board member of the NJ chapter of the Northeast Organic Farming Association, and on Governance with the Ujamaa Cooperative Farming Alliance, which preserves culturally meaningful seed and food.
Tell us about Wildflower Farm.
We had the chance to make the transition from city to country, and we left Michigan and arrived in Pennington in 2018. We spent a year setting up the farm and then opened it commercially the month before Covid hit and everything shut down. But it worked out. At Wildflower Farm, we grow vegetables, and we produce organically and ethically raised pastured poultry and lamb. We have a focus on humane animal husbandry and policies as well as education and conservation in agriculture. I am a farmer, but I ended up right back in education, which is my passion. I do a lot of sustainability classes on the farm. I also taught part-time at Stuart Country Day School until the pandemic hit.
What attracted you to the position of Food Systems Literacy Coordinator?
I have always loved teaching. Teaching people how to feed themselves, and their communities, is incredibly important. The real beauty in this work, is that every community and every child is different. Hence, our teaching must be broad and diverse.I've spent time in 27 countries and thoroughly enjoy engaging with diverse communities and being a bridge in my community. Also, the Food Systems Literacy Coordinator position creates an opportunity to touch on all facets of food.I have experience developing curriculum, and this job gives me an opportunity to partner with teachers, parents, students, food services, custodians, facilities staff and administration, all to create a full and flourishing food system for our community.
From garden to table. It's great to have a job at the intersection of food science, gardening, farming, and education. We want to provide students and staff with the opportunity,space,and knowledge to eat well. Having been in the professional modeling and dance worlds and knowing the potential devastation negative self-image can cause,I am all about imparting healthy habits and positive body image to my students. To me, education is the key to closing food security gaps, permanently.
You have only been here a short time, but do you have specific projects planned?
We plan on doing three events before the school year is over, which is only weeks away. It should be good fun. We will do a survey of teachers, staff, parents and students, because all those voices are critical when it comes to our food curriculum. We are also hoping to digitize the scheduling system for the food lab spaces beginning with the Teaching Kitchen and Modern Living classroom at Princeton Middle School. This is such an amazing space!
Will you be in all six schools? Do you have a home base?
I will be based in Princeton Middle School, and I will work with all six schools. I love this space, the Modern Living Classroom. If you asked me what my ideal workspace would be like, it would be this space with a door to a garden outside that connects to this teaching kitchen.
Do you have curriculum goals?
When you look at student learning, you realize that every subject relates in some way to the food system. Whether it is science or math or the humanities, it all relates to food. For me, the overarching goal is to teach students how to make the best decisions about food for themselves and their communities, impart a full understanding of how their food system works and where they fit within it, and to encourage them to manage and steward that system through their choices and the power of their own ingenuity and innovation.
I truly want eating well to be the new normal for all of our students and their families. "If you cannot feed yourself, you are not really free?" It's a simple question really, though not one we often think about. I would love everyone to know how to grow something on their windowsill. As we move forward, we want to have outdoor spaces where students can graze on vegetables if they want and have an understanding of food using their gardeners' knowledge.
You have degrees in dance and education, fine and performing arts, along with a minor in Spanish. That's a pretty amazing background! How did you get interested in food?
I have enjoyed teaching since the age of 15. I see music, food, and dance as being three great connectors; it’s hard to be mad at someone when you are sharing a plate of great food. I have had many professional opportunities, including modeling, being in the professional dance world, and dance education. No matter what industry I am in, I am always drawn to education. I was a part of the professional dance world in New York City, but I knew that I wanted to have children, and eventually I opted to put my dance career aside. I double majored in dance and education, and I opened Dance for LIFE (Love, Inspiration, Faith and Empowerment) as a dance school out of our home in Michigan.
Do you have any long-term dreams or a wish-list of things you might like to do over the period of several years?
Long term and short term, I want to get students excited about growing their own food. Some already are! It’s about educating and actively engaging students, showing students that it can be simple to grow some of your own food, that it doesn’t have to be hard. We can teach them to grow some “instant gratification” crops and give them the opportunity to learn to love gardens and healthy food at even the youngest age. I’m looking forward to expanding after-school cooking and gardening opportunities. We want to remove barriers for teachers, students, parents and staff to make the best possible use of the edible gardens, the gardening spaces, the raised beds, and the greenhouse at the high school. There is so much potential here.
We’ve talked about having a garden box in every student’s home, a small 2-foot by 2-foot box, and having student mentors who can show everyone how to grow food at home. We might reach out for sponsors. I want to move toward a world where eating well is everybody’s normal!
If you have a love of plants and healthy food, it makes it easier to avoid junk food or vending machines. I’m not saying that you should never have junk food (I certainly enjoy my occasional grab and go), but only that it should not be the automatic choice. I want all PPS students to know what nutrient-dense food is and to crave real food, not the chemically addictive stuff covered in marketing and aimed directly at their young minds. I am hoping to work with teachers, parents and our health divisions to expand self-explorations on how food affects our brains and bodies for our Middle and High School students.
What is pantry gardening?
My pantry gardening class started in the pandemic. I have great fun showing people how to grow food from what they already have at home, in their pantry or refrigerator. Beans, potatoes, garlic, onions, lettuce, celery, carrots—there are lots of possibilities. The challenge for many people was discerning truth from internet hype, I help them to do that in the pantry gardening class. For example, while it's true that if you put a sweet potato in water, it will grow, and the leaves are super nutritious and planted vines give you a yummy harvest, what you actually get from planting a carrot top is seeds and leaves, not a carrot. The pantry gardening class teaches basics that used to be common knowledge. If you look back to World War II, everyone had a victory garden.
Tell us about Garden State on Your Plate.
Garden State on Your Plate is a terrific program that brings farmers and chefs into school cafeterias. PPS has had great success with it in the past, and we hope to bring it back for the school year 2023-2024.
Is there anything you would like to add? What do you do in your free time?
I enjoy spending time with my family, cooking, canning food, horseback riding and of course dancing. I am forever reading and hope to follow in the footsteps of my parents and grandmother as a woman that believes in being lifelong learner.
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