Pilot Light and SOFSA: Planting the Seeds of Partnership

Pilot Light and SOFSA (the Syracuse Onondaga Food Systems Alliance) have big plans for the future of Food and Agriculture Education in Syracuse, NY. When small organizations join forces, they have the potential to grow from a single seed of an idea into an orchard of impact. Here’s how we plan to sprout big changes in the Syracuse-Onondaga food system…

The Seeds: 

A community meeting hosted by SOFSA.
Photo provided by SOFSA

In 2023, Pilot Light was awarded a USDA Farm to School Grant in order to expand our Food Education mission. As a growing organization, it is important to us to ground ourselves in the work already being done in the communities we serve. Therefore, as we began planning to expand to more agricultural districts, we looked for partners to help us further our Food Education work. We were struck by the community-minded food justice work spearheaded by The Syracuse Onondaga Food Systems Alliance (SOFSA)

SOFSA is a network of community members, organizations, businesses, and policymakers working together to build a better food system for everyone in Syracuse, Onondaga County, and Onondaga Nation. SOFSA brings communities together to foster relationships, develop projects, align resources, and advocate for policies to improve the health of their neighbors and environment. (Are you located in the Syracuse-Onondaga Nation area? SOFSA is open to anyone who eats, grows or loves food in the Syracuse-Onondaga region, and folks can tap in by joining an upcoming event on their Community Calendar or reaching out directly to their staff.) 

After meeting with the SOFSA team, Pilot Light incorporated a partnership plan into our USDA Farm to School grant application and received the two-year award in summer 2023. 

The Sprouts: 

Pilot Light staffers visit Food Education Fellow Monica Chamberlain in her central NY classroom.
Left to right: Taylor Meredith, Monica Chamberlain, Caitlin Arens

Once we were awarded Farm to School funding for this partnership, we knew it was crucially important to visit Onondaga County for ourselves. Luckily, we already had connections to the Central New York area. Two of our current Food Education Fellows are located nearby in Hamilton, NY (Monica Chamberlain, Hamilton Central School) and Schenectady, NY (Regina Hanson, Schalmont Central School District). 

In March of 2024, Pilot Light team members Caitlin Arens and Taylor Meredith traveled to Syracuse. Our three goals for this trip were: 

  1. gain a deeper understanding of the area,
  2. visit our current Fellows, and 
  3. and begin identifying more local educators interested in bringing Food Education to their classrooms.

After spending a snowy, jam-packed school day with Food Ed. Fellow Monica Chamberlain, we visited local grocery stores, libraries, and schools with fliers promoting our Food Education Fellowship. “Both Taylor and I went to school in Syracuse, so being back there felt like a homecoming,” Caitlin Arens, Food Education Fellowship Director, explains. “This is where I first learned about the relationship between different parts of the food system, including the intricacies of the school food system.” 

“Our goal for this visit was to tap into the diverse web of folx in the Syracuse area by sharing fliers about The Food Education Fellowship opportunity in places where the community gathers around food: from larger, local grocers like Wegmans, to smaller co-op and family markets, to community centers conducting food drives, libraries where you read about food, and even meeting directly with school food professionals and teachers in their district’s professional learning centers. When you move through these different branches of the food system for yourself, you realize that learning about how it all works is truly central to our own personal and collective development. This is why partnering with organizations like SOFSA, who are already doing great work on the local level to convene the community around improving the food system, is essential.” –Caitlin Arens, Pilot Light Food Education Fellowship Director 

The Fruits:

Finally, we ended our trip with a Food Education demonstration at Salt City Market, co-produced by Jess Miller of The Kitchen Literacy Project.

The event featured local Syracuse chefs Manila Southammavong of Fat Brother, Joey Chisari of Mojo’s Miscellaneous, and Brody Mapes of Willow Rock Brewing Company in a “Chopped” style competition. The three chefs, all of which come from different culinary and cultural backgrounds, demonstrated the Pilot Light Food Education Standard FES 1: Food connects us to each other. By using the same ingredients to showcase three different culinary interpretations, the chefs showed the audience how food can be used in the classroom to connect students to one another and spark conversation about how personal food experiences relate to the food system as a whole. 

The event was predominately attended by educators in the area, including several from Lafayette School District located near the Onondaga reservation. It was a great opportunity to meet people interested in Food and Agriculture Education and speak with them about The Food Education Fellowship and additional programs. 

The Orchard: 

SOFSA community event where children helped plant a garden.
Photo provided by SOFSA

Both Pilot Light and SOFSA view community partnerships as a powerful agent of change for our food systems. Together, our long-term goal for this partnership is to raise awareness about the potential of Food Education as a tool for creating lasting change to local food systems, especially those that have been harmed by environmental injustice, redlining, and disinvestment. However, these orchard-sized goals can only be achieved through patience and thoughtful relationship building. This is why we are starting small and laying the groundwork through: 

  • site visits to the Syracuse-Onondaga area, 
  • recruiting passionate educators eager to get involved in our programs, and 
  • resource-sharing with SOFSA and other local partners already doing this work in their community. 

Change is possible – the growth of a seed to an orchard proves just that. You can follow our shared blossoming on social media: @pilotlightchefs @syrfoodalliance or reach out to us by emailing info@pilotlightchefs.org and info@syrfoodalliance.org

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