The following is a guest blog post by Sarah Dachos, a Navy veteran, farmer and beekeeper, who works in ecological food waste diversion and environmental justice. She is one of the participants on the Veterans History Project’s (VHP) virtual discussion panel, “Veteran Grown: Urban Farming.”
I joined the Navy in 1989 for many of the same reasons millions join the military—to serve my country, learn exciting skills unobtainable in the civilian world (after all, I was a Top Gun-era teenager!) and pay for college. I loved the life I led as a young Naval Officer—flying aircraft, traveling the world, building great responsibility coupled with the joyful adventures of youth.
In 2009, I moved to Libreville, Gabon, to open a security assistance office for two Central African countries, Gabon and Sao Tome & Principe. I had experience in this field from rebuilding eastern European maritime forces, and recently had earned a Master’s in African Studies. I was fully committed to the task, and believed I would easily follow Lilla Watson’s wise words, “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” I would not do for others; I would only collaborate through a shared passion for improving the world.
However, the pressure from the higher echelons to accomplish things immediately, the disproportionality of economic and military power between the United States and our African partners and my inability to acknowledge none of my work was about me, made it difficult to “work together,” and not just “do the job alone to make sure it was completed.” I was there for just over two years. Real impact takes time measured in the building of relationships, learning which organic methods are already in place, discovering the grassroots skills and ideas and nurturing sustainable programs. In that short time, none of these can genuinely happen. My annual review glowed, but on the ground, I had only established nascent programs that withered once I left the continent. If I had truly learned from my partners, and drove funding to support their ideas, would the outcomes have been different?
When I retired from the military in 2014, I struggled to recognize how I could still serve outside the Navy. Where to channel that energy? To pass the time while I figured it out, I volunteered at a farm that catered to Washington, D.C.’s most marginalized communities via a fresh produce mobile market. The farm manager changed the course of my life: she had worked in food justice for years, and in the hours that we worked side-by-side in the kale or tomato rows, she passed wisdom and knowledge regarding local and federal policy on access to healthful food, the opportunity to produce it and the health problems directly connected to the lack of both. In my military career, I had not been exposed to food justice issues. I was shocked, and moved to try to change it.
I tried to find employment in the food justice sector and took several actions to “get smart” on the issues and build my resumé. I volunteered at Wide Net Project, a local non-profit that strategically connects hunger relief with conservation efforts. In that capacity, I embarked on a listening tour in our greater foodshed and learned how interconnected we are due to our holistic reliance on producing, selling and consuming food.
Simultaneously, with help from the 9/11 GI Bill, I attended the University of D.C. to work on my Master’s in Urban Agriculture, and became immersed in the District’s agriculture scene. The most impactful aspect of my education was as a Fellow at THEARC Farm in Ward 8, the most marginalized community in D.C., where one in three residents live below the poverty line. These neighborhoods are home to our most underserved for food access, with only three grocery stores for more than 200,000 residents. Though I was the Fellow, the local volunteers became my teachers on sustainable agricultural practices carried to them from former generations. Composting? Cover cropping? Symbiotic planting? Seed saving and sharing? They knew it all! However, many did not have the means to implement their compelling ideas. I ended my fellowship understanding clearly that we are all saved only when we are all allowed to participate. I resolved to ascertain how to support their initiatives.
My first agriculture job was as Deputy Director of Farmer Veteran Coalition. The then-Executive Director had been a civil rights activist in the ’60s and was ardent that Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) were provided the same opportunities offered to others; he was well-versed in racial injustices in American agriculture. We had frank conversations with our BIPOC members on how we could create and implement inclusive policy. Based on their advice, we crafted an intentional racial equity approach to our programs, and advocated for the same on the federal level. It took time to hear people, and even though we are no longer in those positions, we’re still listening and growing as our work in the equity space continues.
I have now come full circle and work with a fellow Navy veteran who started Loop Closing, a company that simultaneously practices ecological food waste diversion and addresses environmental justice issues. Most incinerators and landfills are disproportionately placed in poor and minority populations’ backyards, exposing them to deadly pollution. We eliminate the harm caused by hauling, burning and leaving our food waste to rot by placing compost units on-site where food waste is produced: restaurants, universities, hospitals and the like. We also create green jobs to train low-income people of color to operate our systems, and employ them to service them and train the users upon installation. The evolution of our process was extensive, and required much community engagement. Again, we are still working on that: listening, implementing local ideas, recognizing that our way is not always best and not letting our egos impede sustainable programs.
With the now-matured, wide-eyed enthusiasm of that young aviator of yesteryear, I dedicate my new career to securing the necessary buy-in and collaboration to achieve social equity in our food system. Success comes with patience. I’ve learned going slowly doesn’t mean inefficiency, but rather being deliberate and committed. I am empowered to find durable, inclusive approaches that support both people and the planet. My liberation is indeed intertwined with my entire community, and I’m committed to working with others at every step of the process.
Watch the premiere of “Veteran Grown: Urban Farming” with closed captions at facebook.com/vetshistoryproject/videos on March 19, 2021, at 12pm ET. If you miss it, watch later at that site, at loc.gov or at https://www.youtube.com/loc/.