Changing the Face of the State’s
Food and Ag Industry
Institute. To me, this provides empirical proof of the power of networking. If I had not gone back to that event, I may have never re-connected
with Margaret and may have never been offered this opportunity.
Q: What exactly does the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute do in general?
A: The Michael Fields Ag Institute is a 501(c) (3) organization based in East Troy, WI. The Policy Program is based in Madison, WI for easier
advocacy engagement. MFAI has three programmatic focuses, Research, Education, and Public Policy, which all revolve around the desire to
nurture the ecological, social, and economic resiliency of food and farming systems. Our research program has two foci: corn breeding,
especially as it relates to creating varieties that won’t cross pollinate easily, which would have huge implications for organic farmers, etc. and
soil health, which has focused heavily on cover crops. Our education program provides workshops for farmers and hobbyists, and also houses
our interns and apprentices who come to the farm in East Troy to gain real-world experience in production, marketing, direct sales and other
activities. Our policy program focuses on sustainable agriculture and food policy at the state and federal level and we have worked on
programs ranging from the Buy Local, Buy Wisconsin program here in the state to the Conservation Stewardship Program at the federal level.
Our organization is not a large one — we have less than 10 staff — but we have a large impact on a number of different issue areas within the
sustainable ag and local food world.
Q: What inspired you to get into the field that you are currently in?
A: I got involved with enviro-justice work many years ago through friends in my freshman dorm in college. The experiences I had with those
friends; taking on community service projects in Madison and service learning trips out of the country, opened my eyes to the complex and far-
reaching enviro issues that we face as a domestic and world community. Since that time, I have expanded my knowledge on food, ag, and
environmental issues but also narrowed my focus through my work on food and ag policy in my current role at Michael Fields. I find this work to
be extremely important for a number of reasons but the most basic is this: everyone eats and ALL of the raw inputs for the things that weave the
fabric of our lives can be tied back to the environment. Advocating for policies that do everything from providing more outlets promoting healthy
food access in various communities to fostering resources for local food and value-added business development to supporting farmers who
covet sustainability and land stewardship in their operations is an incredibly worthwhile mission to take on. I also think that creating more
public awareness of how the natural world and our built environment interact and of the crucial, foundational role the natural world plays to our
societal well-being can create positive change in our habits and lifestyles. We need to take that educational goal seriously and make sure that
everyone has a basic understanding and education on food, agriculture, and environment.
Q: I learned that in your work, you are actively engaged in affirming the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition's commitment to racial
inclusion. Is the work you do relevant to communities of color? If so, please elaborate.
A: NSAC is a very prominent coalition within the sustainable agriculture world and the work we do is relevant to Communities of Color and
frankly, to all people. As I’ve said, the stewardship and protection of our natural resources should be a prime objective for everybody, because
it’s the foundation for the lives we lead. With a degraded natural resource base, we can’t grow food adequately, we don’t have access to
potable water, we don’t have clean air to breathe; the list goes on and on. I think that by continuing to examine our policy priorities, to engage
with organizations of color in the communities where our member groups are based and where we have our bi-annual conferences, and by
offering up a forum for inclusive dialogue and issue engagement, NSAC will continue to affirm its commitment to racial equity and will continue
to diversify its’ ranks, both from a member standpoint and from a staffing standpoint. I’m very excited to be assisting in developing tools and
approaches that help to further this goal and to include issues that are pertinent to organizations of color and the communities they represent.
Q: Are there challenges you face in seeing that your message resonates with communities of color?
A: Oh of course. I think that environment, food, and agriculture have been framed in a way that makes it seem exclusionary for a lot of people
and communities of color. There has been some very interesting work done on this subject. Carolyn Finney, a professor at the University of
Kentucky and author of “Black Faces, White Spaces,” discusses how things like hunting, camping, hiking, skiing, and involvement in
environmental causes have been historically framed to be illustrative of activities and pursuits for White people. She uses this historical
framework to analyze the relationship between the natural environment and people of color in America. She gave a great speech on it this year
at the Nelson Institute’s Earth Day Conference. I reference work like Dr. Finney’s to emphasize the idea that in the space I currently work in, both
in Wisconsin and nationally, rarely do I see young, people of color occupying positions like mine and this creates challenges when working to
expand the capacity of the sustainable agriculture and local foods fields to incorporate and draw students of color into it. Work is being done to
remedy this and there has been a noticeable uptick in interest and actionable activity to diversify these fields. I’m encouraged by this work and
will be interested to see what the field looks like in 5-10 years as the push to genuinely diversify continues.
Q: Madison has pockets in our community that currently face food insecurity. What are your thoughts on how we as a city can bring adequate
food sources to these communities?
A: This problem, unfortunately, is not unique to Madison or even to urban communities; rural communities throughout the country also face food
insecurity and access to outlets that provide healthy, affordable, culturally appropriate food choices. I think that there are a number of
approaches to solving food security issues, and the city and the mayor’s office is already implementing a lot of them through programs like the
MadMarket Double Dollars Program, which increases the purchasing power of EBT benefits at direct sales outlets like farmers markets, etc.
and the SEED grants that the Madison Food Policy Council disburses to organizations throughout the city to increase access to good food.
However, just increasing purchasing power or creating access to healthy foods is not enough. I’m a firm believer that education is just as
important as access. And even more importantly, community relatability to the education being conveyed is crucial. If you have someone who
comes into a community pushing a prescriptive agenda on which foods should and shouldn’t be consumed BAM! You lose a significant portion
of community interest because people don’t want to be told that what they like isn’t “right.” I believe that you have to work to create an authentic
dialogue between community members, and their desires, and any entity or individual that wants to assist community members in reaching
those goals. Additionally, I think organizations continually need to seek out, identify, and support community advocates and ambassadors who
are pushing for change within their own communities instead of hiring an outsider to come in and do the work. Trust is the key when it comes to
partnerships and collaborative work and you trust people that come from where you come from and can contextualize issues from a personal
Q: What advice would you give to young people who are interested in a career in your field?
A: Email me and let’s grab coffee and talk! Seriously, my personal email is email@example.com and I love connecting talented, passionate
young people with opportunities and information on community food systems and sustainable agriculture. Outside of that, I would say build and
use your networks. As I said earlier, the reason I am in the position I’m in right now is based upon creating connections and then using those
connections. Continually seek out opportunities to advance your knowledge on the issues that you care about within this field, whether you do
that by finding and regularly meeting with a mentor, volunteering at various organizations and businesses, or securing internships that further
your hard skills and social capital. A note to any young person reading this who does have interest in food systems and sustainable agriculture:
The world is literally your oyster and you have the time and opportunities right now, to pave the road to the future that you want. Use this time
wisely and strategically and make the most of it!
Q: Who or what inspires you the most in our city?
A: I’m inspired by Will Green at Mentoring Positives and the Salvation Army Community Center, who has been a steadfast pillar in the Darbo
community, working with the youth and pairing something that is interesting to many city students, basketball, with crucial advice and
introspection on life and the decisions that dictate quality of life. I’m inspired by Coach Tutankhamun Assad and the work he does at the
Mellowhood Foundation, instilling self-awareness and confidence in neighborhood youth through urban agriculture, flag-football, team-based
collective action, and discussion of what it means to be fulfilled and successful in society and to make choices which allow one to achieve that
I’m inspired by Robert Pierce and his team (and daughters Ana, Shayba, and Shellie) who do such great work on the South Side through the
South Madison Farmers Market and with the kids at Badger Rock Middle School, in addition to the PEAT Program, where he educates high
school age students about ag production and marketing.
I’m inspired by Annette Miller at MGE who connects with the community on a variety of issues and connects those in the community to
volunteering, employment, and engagement opportunities whenever she can. There are so many people who are doing inspiring work here in
Madison that I could fill up the pages of the Hues with their names and stories. For all the bad you hear about Madison when it comes to racial
climate and outcomes — and let’s not mince words, there are deep and real disparities here that tangibly and adversely affect large portions of
people of color — there is also so much good going on with community leaders and activists; regular people, working so hard to make a
difference in their pockets of the city.
Q: What are some of the civic engagements you are involved in?
A: I am a member of the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service’s (NRCS) State Technical Committee, which works with NRCS admin
staff and producers throughout the state to make decisions on financial allocations for certain conservation programs at the local level and to
offer input on changes to programmatic policies and more. Additionally, I am the policy lead with the WI Local Food Network, which in the past
has held a Local Foods Lobbying Day that brought advocates from across the state to the Capitol to lobby their legislators to support Farm to
School and Buy Local Buy WI in the budget.
I am also involved with National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (Washington DC) in pushing forward initiatives focused on increasing the
coalition’s ability to engage with diverse stakeholders, infuse racial equity lenses into its policy decision-making process and apply those racial
equity considerations reflected in the strategic plan to on-the-ground work.
MFAI is also developing an initiative called Growing Urban Leaders in Food Systems (GULFS) in Milwaukee and Madison. GULFS focuses on
partnering with orgs and schools in those communities and working with students on food systems issues like food justice, healthy food
access, health/nutrition, environment and soil contamination and using them as the mechanism to engage in activities and potentially
campaigns in their neighborhoods that spur increased civic engagement.
Q: What is an interesting fact about you that most people do not know?
A: I LOVE to cook! When I have time, I like to make new things from the large stack of cookbooks we have on-hand in our kitchen. I remember
making a tofu-coconut milk stew and on another occasion a red lentil and fried egg dish with zucchini fritters. The tofu-coconut dish I kind of
botched (I’ll master it next time) but the red lentil dish and the fritters were delicious. Cooking is a therapeutic process to me and I like being
able to take a recipe and modify it to my palate (or the palate of whoever I’m cooking for/with). Cooking is also cheap (ish) — you can make
something you could get in a restaurant at home for a fraction of the price. Truly a win-win situation.
Q: What do you do for fun when you have leisure time?
A. What is lee-zure time? Nah, I’m playing. This may be a boring answer but honestly, I like to just RELAX when I actually do have leisure time. I’
m not mad at the idea of hanging out in my backyard, grilling some burgers and brats, reading a book, and having a beer with my girlfriend and
our cat Wheaties (who, of course, is not partaking in the beer.)
When you first meet George Reistad, you immediately embrace an authentic spirit about him and feel his
passion for the policy work he does at the Michael Fields Agriculture Institute. George notes that there
are not too many people who look like him in his field, but there certainly is a compelling case for why
more young professionals of color should consider work in the areas of sustainable agriculture and food
policy. As more and more urban and rural communities struggle with access to healthy food choices in
their communities, the significance of his work becomes even clearer. As part of his work, George is
teaming up with the UW-Madison PEOPLE Program's Food and Agriculture track, which aims to diversify
Wisconsin's food and agriculture industry by introducing high school students to that field. You can learn
more about this initiative at the upcoming People Fundraiser and Pizza Product Launch scheduled for
July 26, 2016 from 12:30 p.m. to 2:00 p.m. at the Salvation Army located at 3030 Darbo Court, Madison,
Q: Where are you from and what brought you to Madison, Wisconsin? What do you currently do
A: I was born and raised in Milwaukee – K-House baby! I came to Madison to attend UW-Madison, where I
graduated in 2011 with a double major in Economics and Environmental Studies. After college I moved
back to Milwaukee and worked for Milwaukee Public Schools for a year. While working for MPS, I came
to Madison for a Nelson Institute event, which featured a presentation by Dr. Monica White and Malik
Yakini. At that event I had the chance to reconnect with a colleague, Margaret Krome, whom I met as a
college intern with the Community and Regional Food Systems Project. We kept in contact after that and 4-
5 months after this event I was offered the Assoc. Policy Director position with the Michael Fields Ag