Feeding a passion for food justice

Julia Talamo ’21 and her classmates gleaned spaghetti squash from a local farm and brought it to a local food pantry.

Growing up in south Florida, Julia Talamo ’21 longed to expand her world and attend college out of state. Her parents, who had immigrated from Argentina, couldn’t afford the tuition and said she’d have to figure out a way to make it happen. 

Challenge accepted. 

The first in her family to attend a four-year college, Talamo’s enthusiastic, take-charge attitude landed her a full four-year scholarship from Mount Holyoke College, which she learned of from the Posse Foundation. This organization partners with institutions nationwide to identify diverse students with academic and leadership potential who risk being overlooked.  

There’s little doubt that she fit the Posse profile perfectly. Her can-do attitude is the driving force behind Talamo’s continual search for opportunities across the Mount Holyoke campus. The College met her at every step, she said. 

Each opportunity she’s reached for — and the College has provided — has shaped Talamo’s interests, honed her leadership skills and set her on the path to becoming an advocate for food justice: She fights underlying social issues that cause food insecurity, which is caused by problems including lack of jobs, unequal distribution of resources and a corporate system that values profit over feeding people. 

“As a person of color, I will tell you that every single professor, every staff member I’ve trusted and asked for help, has tried their best — with every fiber of their being — to help me,” Talamo said. “When I reflect on the many positive experiences that I’ve had at Mount Holyoke, I'm very grateful.” 

The admiration is mutual, said Catherine Corson, the Leslie and Sarah Miller Director of the Miller Worley Center for the Environment

“Julia is a terrific example of a student making the most of the resources and opportunities the College provides,” said Corson, who is also Miller Worley Associate Professor of Environmental Studies. “In doing so, she is helping the College build a strong and inclusive environmental program. She leads with passion, collaboration and authenticity — all the qualities of leadership we try to instill.” 

Corson is one of several important connections Talamo has made. An environmental studies major also working on a Five College certificate in culture, health and science, she’s spending her college years exploring the environment, public health and social justice — and making a significant impact on the local community. 

What does learning to lead look like? 

It all started with two courses about the ways environmental factors affect human health, taught by Jennifer Albertine, a visiting lecturer in environmental studies. Those courses ignited Talamo’s academic passion. Inspired, she registered for a third class taught by the professor, From Local to Global: Food Justice and the Challenge of Feeding 10 Billion People. 

The course raised issues that resonated deeply with her student, Albertine said. 

“Julia has a strong personal connection to the inequities in our system based on skin color,” she said. Talamo agreed. 

“Growing up in a Latinx community I’ve seen these issues, but I never examined them critically,” she said. “Race, for example, is a predicting indicator of whether you live in an area with polluted air and water, which places people of color at a major health disadvantage.” 

Looking for opportunities to incorporate her academic knowledge with real-world experience, Talamo sought advice from a fellow Posse Scholar — Mount Holyoke’s Posse community is very close — who suggested Talamo reach out to Alan Bloomgarden. As the College’s director of community engagement, Bloomgarden oversees Community-Based Learning in the College’s Weissman Center for Leadership. The program connects students with community organizations through courses, independent studies, internships, research and service projects. 

“I called Alan and said, ‘I'm an excited first-year student and I want to be in Community-Based Learning,’” Talamo said. “‘How can I get involved?’” 

Bloomgarden and Albertine considered Talamo’s fluent Spanish and her passion for food justice the perfect fit for a fellowship coordinating a local food recovery program. A coalition between Mount Holyoke, Smith College, nonprofit groups and the Big Y, a local supermarket, the program diverts clean surplus food to Hampshire Heights, an affordable housing community in neighboring Northampton. 

How do you work for food justice? 

Albertine’s food justice class also included trips to local farms. Students gleaned vegetables farmers left in the fields after the main harvest, boxed the produce and transported it to local food pantries. Talamo, who translated instructions from a Spanish-speaking farm worker, called it an important experience. 

“Integrating community-based learning components with academic discussions provides a glimpse of the world beyond Mount Holyoke,” she said. “They’re important, tangible experiences students will remember years from now.” 

In addition to academics and community projects, the College emphasizes food justice in its operations. For instance, it supports the regional food economy by buying local organic and sustainably-sourced foods and is on track to meet its 2020 goal of 20 percent local sourcing. 

The Miller Worley Center offers a summer internship with Gardening the Community, an organization based in nearby Springfield that works with youth around urban agriculture and sustainable living. Mount Holyoke also provides opportunities to learn more about food justice, such as showing films and hosting speakers, often offered through the Center. 

Two such lectures inspired Talamo’s next opportunity. First, MHC Familia, a student organization for LGBT people of color, hosted a discussion on the decolonization of food given by Amy Quichiz, founder of Veggie Mijas. Then, the Miller Worley Center hosted a lecture by Leah Penniman, a farmer, writer and activist, entitled "Farming While Black: African Diasporic Wisdom for Farming and Food Justice.” 

“Traditionally, environmental movements have been predominantly white and focused on preserving nature,” said Talamo. “I see environmental activism as protecting people. We need a human aspect to these conversations, and I want to make sure that marginalized voices are heard.” 

Diversity, equity and inclusion + sustainability = ? 

Fired up, Talamo took the initiative yet again by contacting Tim Farnham, chair of environmental studies, to ask how she could work with the Miller Worley Center. He connected her with Catherine Corson, who talked to Talamo the next day. 

Through that connection, Talamo’s fellowship now includes working with the Miller Worley Center at the intersection of sustainability and diversity, equity and inclusion — two of the College’s top priorities. She works with student cultural organizations to learn how the Center can support their goals. Talamo hopes to see more campus events that address problems with the food system and the environment from the point of view of people of color. 

“We might, for example, meet with La Unidad, an organization for Latinx students on campus,” said Talamo. “If they’re interested in hosting environmental or food justice events, we can help fund them.” 

She’s helping organize events herself, such as the recent visit to campus by Dorceta Taylor, an environmental sociologist at the University of Michigan. Talamo has been named a Doris Duke Conservation Scholar to work with Taylor this summer.

Her can-do attitude got Talamo into the Posse program, which led her to Mount Holyoke and its students, staff and professors, starting with Albertine. They’ve all given their unwavering support. Now she’s passing it on. 

Lauren Simonds

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