Monday, April 7, 2014

Gail Feenstra

University of California, Davis

Village Homes Part I

This is the first in a series of posts featuring women living in my neighborhood, Village Homes in Davis, California. It is a special community filled with fruit trees, garden plots, and children running wild.

When I entered into the University of Gastronomic Sciences in 2007 as a student, many of us had romantic visions of projects and businesses we would start after graduation.  Over the past seven years of reality, I am sure our visions have hardened and perhaps we appear jaded to the newbie. Agriculture is a business, like any other, but understanding how and why systems work is essential in creating change and rebuilding more effective ones. Queue Gail Feenstra.

Gail has a combination of passion and pragmatism when she looks at food and agricultural systems. She and her husband both work at the University of California, Davis and live around the corner from me in Village Homes. The first time we met, she flat out told me a certain trendy food marketing concept would simply not work. I admire that about her. She works at the Sustainable Agriculture Resources and Education Program (UC SAREP) as their Deputy Director and Food Systems Coordinator
The program provides leadership and support for research and education in the food and agricultural industries. I had the good fortune of working with her on a grant in Yolo County. During this brief time she quickly became someone I sought out for advice and though she disagrees Gail is one of my mentors. She is the mother of two adult children, one of whom owns a food truck in Portland, Oregon. I have opened up to her on more than one occasion about my struggle to maintain a fulfilling career and be a present mother.

I like to ask everyone interviewed to describe their personal style and comment on their favorite shoes. Gail claims not to have a particular style, but her brightly colored clothes reflect her spirit: pixie-like and full of energy. Spending time with her, it is clear that she is truly passionate about food. I often see her from a distance running in the morning with her dog, Maya, or barreling back from the farmer’s market on her bike with a trailer full of produce. She is my kind of lady. 

I spent a fun afternoon at her house tasting through an artfully prepared series of small plates. Each bite contained a slight variation of flavors and she asked me to comment as we moved along.

How did you start evaluating food systems?
Way back in the early 1990's, SAREP use to give out grants to food system projects. We needed to follow up to see what was happening, how and why. In the early 2000's, I began evaluating farm-to-school programs, trying to use more quantitative data vs just the qualitative information that most typical.

Did/do you have a mentor?
My mentor is Joan Gussow, former Chair of the Nutrition Department at Teachers College, Columbia University in New York City. She taught a course on nutritional ecology and it opened my eyes to the notion of a "food system" vs nutrition from a nutrient point of view (which is what I had learned at UC Davis as a Dietetics Major). Joan was my advisor for my doctoral dissertation.  

What do you wish food and agriculture entrepreneurs knew about the food industry before diving into a project or vision?
A more accurate projection of the business side - real cost and benefits.

You have had an amazing career and raised two children. What advice do you have for working mothers trying to move forward in the food and agricultural industries?
Joan told me this - don't try and do too much when you are a young mother. You'll have time later. Enjoy your children now. Joan was 40 when she went back to school in nutrition! I agree, looking back. Let yourself be with your child and not feel guilty. In the meantime, you can network and volunteer and do things that feed you without getting in over your head time-wise and getting all stressed out.

Describe your cooking style? 
Experimental, but I love to follow recipes. Ingredients are important - local, fresh are the best, especially when you know the grower or producer.

How does living in Village Homes influence your design and life-style?
Gardening, grazing from common areas, learning from people who are much more adept at it than me - especially saving on energy. [Living here] encourages community networking, walking just for the enjoyment of it, trying to live low on the food chain with a smaller environmental footprint.

Who is Gregory the Gnome? 
Gregory came when my husband, Rob, broke his hip last spring and was laid up for six weeks. I decided he needed a wood-working project to get him out of the house and do something with his hands, so I thought of a gnome house. Then we needed a gnome to go in the gnome house. That's when Gregory came along with his history.

Gregory is famous in Village Homes as he is involved in a letter exchange with the neighborhood children.

What is your favorite spot in your house?
The kitchen where else?

And there it is.


  1. The village homes decoration are always be an exciting feature, because you can have a lot of space to decorate your house. And your house just blow my mind specially the outside ground. I think you will need a motorbike trailers to move your heavy stuff in that larger place.
    Thanks for sharing!

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