Behind the Mask: Anisha Rathod | CUESA

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October 26, 2020

Behind the Mask: Anisha Rathod

In these times of social distancing, we’re taking you “behind the mask” with each CUESA staff member. Meet our Foodwise Programs Coordinator Anisha Rathod, who manages our Foodwise Teens program, which was adapted for distance learning this fall.

Tell us a bit about you and your role and history at CUESA.

I joined CUESA in January 2019 as a part-time youth educator to support our Foodwise Kids, Foodwise Teens, and Foodwise Families programs. As these programs grew, so did my role at CUESA, and I was quickly hired on as a full-time Education Coordinator. In this position, I also worked on our adult educational programming by facilitating Market to Table cooking demonstrations and supporting fundraising events and other educational programming. Now my work focuses solely on our Foodwise youth programming, and I am CUESA’s Foodwise Programs Coordinator. 

I worked closely with our Education Manager, Tessa Kappe, to launch the first year of Foodwise Teens in 2019. This program transformed CUESA’s Schoolyard to Market program from a classroom-based program to a 10-week, after-school paid fellowship program where students learn transferable life job skills. I led trainings on food justice and sustainable food production at our three partner high schools: John O’Connell High School, Mission High School, and Academy SF @ McAteer. We worked with students to tend to the edible plants growing at their school gardens, turn their harvest into value-added products like pickles and herb salts, and market and sell their bounty at CUESA’s Mission Community Market and Saturday Ferry Plaza Farmers Market.

As Tessa worked on expanding CUESA’s partnerships with SFUSD, Mayor London Breed’s Opportunities for All (OFA) initiative, and other organizations, I began fully managing our Foodwise Kids program, a free field trip to the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market for SFUSD elementary school students from the district’s schools experiencing the highest food insecurity. Through our robust internship program, each year we are able to serve 2,500 students and support 8 Bay Area educators in developing adaptable and accessible teaching skills to meet the needs of all kinds of learners. 

How has your work changed since the pandemic?

Before the pandemic, all of my work was in person and took me all over San Francisco. I was working with students, teachers, families, volunteers, and interns in school kitchens and gardens and at CUESA’s farmers markets. All of this has changed since the pandemic. 

Currently our Foodwise Kids and Foodwise Families programs are on pause, and we are focusing on Foodwise Teens, which is almost entirely online. I also moved from the Bay to New York City in early 2020, right before the pandemic hit. Now I am working remotely to coordinate our online Foodwise programming. 

Prior to the pandemic, Foodwise Teens took place after school and at the school once a week for 3 hours each week. We would work in the school garden and school kitchen together and do activities to learn about the food system and ways to combat food injustice and food insecurity in students’ communities. Each student would work once at CUESA’s Mission Community Market and Saturday Ferry Plaza Farmers Market as a team to sell their produce and value-added products and practice customer service skills.  

This fall, due to the limitations around school programs during the pandemic, we relaunched Foodwise Teens as a distance-learning program. The program is now a combination of after-school group video trainings for 1.5 hours each week and 1.5 hours of independent hands-on activities. We delivered growing and cooking kits to each student, so they can explore different stages of food production wherever they are staying during shelter in place. This offers a unique opportunity to support students in learning about food and nature in their immediate environment versus in their school setting. 

Beginning last weekend, students also have the opportunity to work an optional in-person shift at one of CUESA’s Saturday Ferry Plaza Farmers Markets to support CUESA’s Operations Team with implementing social distancing and food safety protocols. If you’re a market shopper, you might run into a Foodwise Teen at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market on October 24 or 31, or November 7, 14, or 21. Feel free to say hi and ask them about the program!

What’s a challenging part of your job?

The most challenging part of running a distance version of Foodwise Teens is supporting students from afar, and that can make it especially challenging to support students with unique learning needs. I am so used to meeting students in person, doing hands-on activities together, and learning how students are doing through non-verbal communication. Now, I am interacting with students through group video calls with 10 to 15 students. Some students are not able to use video or audio (instead using the chat box to communicate). This is an entirely different learning environment, where the non-verbal communication I’ve come to rely on is nearly nonexistent. To combat this, we have built in plenty of time for individualized phone calls with students to understand how we can support them in this challenging learning environment. 

Another incredibly challenging part of distance Foodwise Teens is learning how to offer the most equitable program when students are facing a variety of access challenges such as spotty internet connections. I found the in-person version of Foodwise Teens to be more accessible to students because if they were already coming to school on a daily basis, then it wasn’t a challenge to stay after school and use public transportation to return to where they were living. Now, if a student’s internet is not working, there is no way for them to show up to Foodwise Teens, or even to school. That’s been a huge challenge of equal access. 

We’ve found creative solutions to other inequities. For example if a student doesn’t have access to outdoor space to grow edible plants, then we provided LED grow lights. If a student doesn’t have tools to prepare a nutritious meal, then we provided a cutting board, knife, and cleaning supplies. While we can support students in requesting an SFUSD laptop for video calls and independent assignments, ultimately we live in a world without universal and consistent access to the internet, and that’s an equity issue. 

What inspires or motivates you about your work at CUESA? 

I still remember the first time I learned how the foods I eat are produced and made accessible (and inaccessible) to people, and it changed my perspective on everything. My goal as an educator is to facilitate that kind of ah-ha moment for others in relation to the foods and systems they encounter and participate in. Food is such an integral part of life. We are all part of the food system in some way, and I believe it’s the duty of people with food privilege to make food and environmental education accessible and universal. I am really grateful to be able to work with so many kinds of people and to learn with and from every one of them. 

How are you taking care of yourself in this time?

When I’m not working with youth or preparing to facilitate activities and conversations about food justice, you can find me embroidering, practicing yoga, or walking in the woods. In the East Coast, the leaves are starting to change colors. Bearing witness to the seasonal changes and resilience of the natural world in the midst of human imposed disasters gives me strength to persevere. Watching the trees adapt bit by bit every day gives me the strength to wake up each morning and take things one day at a time.

Do you have any favorite farmers market foods or tips you can share?

Since moving back to the East Coast, I have missed California’s bountiful local, seasonal, and fresh food and CUESA’s wonderful market sellers deeply. I would say don’t be afraid to try something you’ve never tried before, or to ask a market seller how they recommend eating the food they sell. The farmers market is a great place to learn from the community around you. One of my favorite things to do is get my hands on any new fruit or vegetable I’ve never had and try it raw, or bake it in the oven with some oil and salt. I love trying foods in their simplest forms first to understand how I can start adding other flavors to it. 

Is there anything else you would like our community to know?

The students participating in Foodwise Teens are so excited to be in the program, especially during the pandemic. The program not only gives students the opportunity to earn money, but also it gives them a space to foster community and connection with others and with the natural environments around them. Thank you for your support of not just Foodwise Teens, but all of CUESA’s educational programming and farmers markets. 

About CUESA

CUESA (Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture) is dedicated to growing thriving communities through the power and joy of local food. Learn More »