We sat down with Sagdrina Jalal, Executive Director of the Georgia Farmers Market Association, at her office at the Center for Civic Innovation. Sagdrina is committed to reconnecting our society through food by increasing access and helping people lead healthier lives.
Tell us a little more about yourself. What was the source of inspiration for the work you do? How did you get to where you are today?
I am a quintessential Georgia girl! I was born in Augusta at Fort Gordon Military Base and raised in Savannah. I graduated from the University of Georgia, and my family and I have now lived in the Atlanta area for 23 years. That is where I come from in a nutshell.
During my third pregnancy, I was diagnosed with lupus, an autoimmune disease. In an effort to address my health, I started paying more attention to my nutrition. Little by little, I became more interested in my food, where it came from, and sourcing it locally. Eventually, I started consulting directly with small organizations and companies to implement wellness plans. One of my clients had an autoimmune disease, and we were very successful with putting her rheumatoid arthritis in remission. As a result, we started an organization in 2013 called Project Generation Gap which was geared to helping those who don't have the opportunity to research and understand the connection between food and health. The goal was to connect them with information on the nutritional value of food and how to access that food locally.
Tell us about the venture you are working on. Where did the idea for your venture come from? How are you driving impact?
Project Generation Gap eventually became the fiscal sponsor for the Georgia Farmers Market Association. The Association had been in existence for about 6 years, and it was an informal meeting of sorts between farmers and market managers that were trying to share best practices and support each other, creating a local food experience in communities across the state. When we became the fiscal sponsor, one of the things I was asked to do was to serve as Executive Director of that organization as well as Project Generation Gap. At this point, most of our work is done through the Georgia Farmers Market Association. Who we are to the world, really, is the Association.
Our focus is helping people to understand the distinction between local food and what they buy in the grocery store while at the same time increasing access to that local food. It is important to note the distinction between affordability and accessibility. Access should not be limited to only those that can afford it. Aside from the nutritional and health benefits of local food, our work impacts the community clearly in other ways as well. When individuals buy food locally, 60% of the value of their purchase stays within the community. The carbon footprint of growing and selling that food is also significantly lower. There is a quality assurance quotient as well-- local growers are growing food that they feed their own families.
Before our relationship with CCI, the organization had an office with a garden that engaged seniors and other members of the community. Currently, we have a project in Walton County. It has a garden as well, which supports our free mobile Farm-acy, in partnership with Walton Wellness.
I think the underlying passion that really fuels me is a perspective on food as a tool to heal. In this way, I really see and understand food as a social justice issue, a viewpoint I did not have initially. I began this work because I looked at food from the perspective of improving my own health and improving the health of others. But equity issues really are at play here. Now more than ever, I see the role that food plays in addressing the disparities that exist in our communities.
How has CCI supported you in your work?
My relationship with CCI began through the Food Innovation Fellowship. I think that the fellowship was a tremendous opportunity for me. The fellowship helped me understand the perspective of local farmers to food better than any prior experience.
Then there is CCI as a physical space. The environment is creative and inspiring! Just being around the energy of the space is so helpful when grappling with ideas and working through issues. When you are around other people that understand your challenges as well as your triumphs-- that is really special. That gets to the core of why we decided to move to and co-work out of CCI. We are home here.
What do you think is the biggest challenge facing Atlanta today?
Food can either bring people together or create challenges for connecting people. In Atlanta, I think we see both. There is not one predominant food culture. Some may see it as oriented around the South, but Atlanta is more cosmopolitan and diverse than that. That is a challenge; Atlanta is still finding itself.
Food growing is a part of this process and that is what makes it so important to me. Food growing should be seen as an act of love. In an age of connectedness, I think we are more disconnected from food and where ours comes from than ever. I think this plays into how disconnected we are from each other as well.
In my original journey to understand where my food came from, I experienced processing chicken. We took the whole bird to the meat that we take for granted. That experience connected me to the chicken that I eat. Because or that, nowadays it is hard for me to eat chicken frivolously. Back in the day, we really valued the act of preparing and eating meat- it was a special experience. Now we have really lowered the value of food. I think that shifting our focus back to the quality and value of food should be our goal. Finding and preserving Atlanta’s food culture goes hand in hand with reconnecting us to the value of what we eat.
Any unexpected challenges you’ve faced or advice for Atlanta’s newest social entrepreneurs?
I had no idea what I was getting myself into-- If I had analyzed this more, there is no way I would be here today, doing the work I do. To that end, I advise Atlanta's future social entrepreneurs to just dive in! Get good advisors, listen to people that have experience and knowledge around what you do, and go for it. Do not become paralyzed by over-analysis. Learn along the way, but don’t lose that passion. Over-analysis could lead to losing your passion.
Also, eat well! Well-being in this space allows you to do your work to the best of your ability and drive change. Fuel your body well. Check our farmers markets around Atlanta, like Freedom Farmer’s Market, Peachtree Road, Grant Park, Green Market at Piedmont Park, East Point, Ponce City Market on Tuesday nights, East Atlanta Village, Decatur, and Bolton Road, a new addition to the fold. We have some amazing markets and growing communities.
Sagdrina has accomplished so much through her work and we are honored to support her through the fellowship and as a resident of the Center. Learn more about Sagdrina and the Georgia Farmers Market Association through their initiative Nourish, an effort to bring local food to the family table.
Atlanta is filled with incredible people and organizations doing meaningful work throughout this city. Their efforts change the way our city designs solutions for the challenges we face in education, art and culture preservation, criminal justice and reform, workforce development, and food security.
The Center for Civic Innovation aims to be a place that supports and showcases these community leaders to the world. This blog series will highlight one entrepreneur or organization from Atlanta every week. We hope their stories will inform and inspire.