Alumni Spotlight: Zach Baker
What motivated you to participate in Volunteer Summer?
I participated in International Jewish College Corps (now Volunteer Summer) in 2003, and I went to Ghana and Ukraine. I decided to do it because I had an interest in going to Africa. I liked the idea of volunteering in a place that did not necessarily have a Jewish community, but coming from the Jewish value of tikkun olam, I felt that we should be helping all people. I come from a split background – my mom is Catholic and my dad is Jewish – so to me that was really cool.
What was the experience like?
While living with a community of 500 people, the Ghana trip made me realize the necessity to rely on each other to get things done. In the morning, the locals would get up for communal work before they went to do their own work. In the U.S. we don't necessarily understand that lifestyle. Even to get food was a community process—the community members all had to go to the ocean to catch the fish and bring it back. Everyone is accountable to each other, and they're united in survival.
How did the trip influence you afterward?
I was studying public health at the time. The community aspect that I mentioned before is a theme in public health—the "tragedy of the commons" is that if we all don't work together, and someone goes out on their own, we lose as a society. That theme strengthened on the trip, and then coming back, as I was working on childhood obesity I began to see the connections with the larger agricultural and food system. So the trip reemphasized the idea that we're all in it together.
There were some folks in the group who were vegetarian, and I had never really experienced that. I had a lot of good conversations about vegetarianism and keeping kosher that definitely influenced me. When I got back I started reading more about vegetarianism, and I've been vegan ever since. It's also informed a lot of my current advocacy on the Farm Bill.
What is your role in working on the Farm Bill?
I work for the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition and the Organic Farming Research Foundation. I'm a policy associate, and I do a mix of lobbying, policy analysis and grassroots organizing, specifically on the organic issues in the Farm Bill. I'll also be handling the appropriations process for our larger sustainable agriculture coalition. I need to know about all of the Farm Bill programs that get discretionary funding, which you have to go fight for every year in the appropriations process.
How do you sustain yourself doing this work? Do you work on any other issues?
Last year I ran one of the local farmer's markets. It was a good way to be on the ground talking to and actually working with farmers, because I'm advocating for them. In general, I do a lot of cooking, I eat healthy and local, and I run and bike everywhere.
One of the reasons I became interested in the Farm Bill is because it's about so many issues I care about: childhood obesity, the environment, international issues—the way we subsidize our crops here affects how Ghanaians can access food. By making change here, domestically, we are affecting what happens around the world. In the future, if I ever had the strength to run for office, that would be ideally what I'd like to do.
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