Jaimie McGirt’s Journey from Coast to Country in Promoting Sustainable Foodways

Burgaw is an old, little southern town north of Wilmington, established in 1850. It’s the county seat for Pender County, NC. Despite having roots in New Hanover, Robeson, and Cumberland counties, it was there that Jaimie McGirt’s parents chose to build a house along the Cape Fear River, made with submerged cypress logs her father pulled from the river bottom. She picked scuppernongs (a type of grape) with her grandparents, spent Sundays on the river, and walked the woods often with her parents. While Jaimie’s family moved to Wilmington when she was only five, she believes those early years were formative, saying, “I have no doubt that my body has an unconscious memory of the river and rural life, and that memory is alive and well in me now as an adult with a family of my own.” 

Rooted in rural life along the river, she found inspiration from several mentors whom she credits for helping pave her pathway through life. One was a school counselor named Cissy Brooks. Cissy was passionate about marine conservation and she spread her enthusiasm throughout the entire school, starting a special class and raising funds to build a pier extending into the marsh for estuary environmental education. She also found a sponsor for a fleet of kayaks. “Being on the water was nothing new,” Jaimie shared, “but, to have a boat I could navigate myself from a place of inquiry is one of my richest experiences as a child.” Jaimie adds that “Cissy knows I consider her an early mentor for the environmental advocacy work I did in high school, but she probably has no idea that her resourcefulness and interdisciplinary approach inspired my professional working style today.”

After thinking she would study marine biology in Charleston, she ended up at Appalachian State University and eventually in the Sustainable Development program. That experience “catalyzed and connected my critical thinking about environmental, economic, and social systems from local to global contexts,” she says. She served on various committees of student and community engagement and through one of them secured an internship at the local NC Cooperative Extension for water quality outreach and education.

It was here that she met another seminal mentor, Wendy Patoprsty, who to Jaimie “was like a reincarnated version of my elementary school mentor. Like Cissy Brooks, Wendy was a boss and I credit her for relating my passion for aquatic ecosystems to Appalachian watersheds.”

Jaimie also worked for App State’s Outdoor Programs through which she led outdoor multi-day backpacking and kayaking expeditions for peers. “Everything I studied and did in my spare time took me deeper into rural Appalachian mountain culture: music, stories, geology, river ecology, social inequities, complex economies, agriculture, and herbalism. But it was the foodways of Appalachia that started my journey deeper into small-scale farming and local food systems,” she says.

Interested in the intersection of faith and food, she spent the following year working on several ministry or community-based farms in Georgia, Kentucky, NC, and an urban CSA farm in Philadelphia. “I met my now husband at Koinonia Farm in Georgia, and after a year of this ‘farmventure’ I moved back to the NC High Country and introduced him — a southern Californian — to the rural Appalachian community I had come to love so much,” she shares. 

She worked for a bit with AmeriCorps but then discovered some burgeoning community development work that was happening in a small unincorporated community on the Watauga County, NC line, driven in part by a few community organizers living in a Methodist church parsonage. She and her husband joined the rural church’s efforts and helped form the non-profit Blackburn Community Outreach (BC0). Jaimie helped launch BCO’s “Todd Listening Project” and taught community and App State volunteers how to go door to door for the beginnings of asset-based community development in the community. Eventually, 115 residents were interviewed and as a result of the learnings they launched a food-centered gathering place called Todd’s Table.

Todd’s Table catalyzed the voiced needs, dreams, and skills of the Todd community and addressed inadequate food access by aggregating farmers’ products into one point of sale. “A lot fell in my lap in Todd,” she says, “but I also conspired with my peers to instigate a lot of other work too. Within a few years’ time, I directed a community festival, directed an art non-profit that puts on a well-known, paper mache puppet parade, and supported the volunteer fire department through a tough situation. “Eight years later, Blackburn Community Outreach’s mission is still at work, under the name Todd’s Table,” Jaimie says proudly.

After five years of rural faith-based organizing work, Jaimie and her family relocated to the NC Triangle to work for The Conservation Fund’s Resourceful Communities program. She supported NC rural United Methodist churches engaging in sustainable development and local food system work. This work entailed helping church leaders think critically about how their food ministries served low-income families and fostering partnerships between churches and local farmers to address food insecurity. During the pandemic, her work at Resourceful Communities shifted to supporting rural churches and grassroots groups doing emergency food distribution. She says that “as the pandemic eased, technical assistance shifted back to making critical partnerships between local food producers, aggregators like rural NC Food Hubs, families experiencing food insecurity, and funding institutions.”

She decided to apply for the position of Agriculture Conservation Coordinator at RAFI-USA because “I really felt like I was ready to return to food systems work with a greater environmental conservation focus.” In her position, she works at the intersection of farm conservation and market access for underserved farmers, largely Black and Brown farmers across the Southeast U.S., Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico (Read about RAFI-USA’s emerging partnership in the territories here).

“I love that I get to utilize my passion for ecological stewardship in the agricultural field. Whether I’m working with farmers who are doing this work seven-fold or farmers feeling nudged in that direction for the first time, farmers in RAFI-USA’s network understand the imperative of adapting their farming approach to the challenges at hand and the call for greater resilience,” she shares. 

To make a sea change in our food system, Jamie believes it “will take a combination of policy advocacy at every level of governing or influencing bodies — from church leadership teams to Capitol Hill. But also necessary is the parallel development of supply and demand for agro-ecologically produced food and the infrastructure that supports the connections from farm to fork. This is RAFI-USA’s approach, after all; we see the importance and impact of the grassroots Wake County CSA and grasstops Farm Bill policy work happening simultaneously. But I also know from experience that it will take an interdisciplinary, creative approach in which all of the sectors claim their stake in food systems work: the arts, education, healthcare, and philanthropy. Mentorship feels imperative to make waves in a sea of change. I wouldn’t be who I am and do what I do without having had mentors along the way. And I am most encouraged by the mentorship I see happening in the small, agroecological farming network that RAFI-USA helps foster.”

At present, Jaimie’s life outside of work and family is limited. She says, “In a time when self-care and work-life balance has become a popular and needed conversation, I usually feel excluded. Having a child with special needs changes a lot; when I’m not working, I am a caregiver and every choice for how to spend our time has special considerations and consequences.”

She finds joy in growing her sons’ interest in their family’s emerging farm, nearby creeks, and other wild places and she loves instigating creative play with them and their playmates.“It’s rich when we actually get out together in the canoe on Saxapahaw Lake or take the rare weekend trip to the NC High Country, or the coast to see my family,” she shares. “While it might sound odd, my work is my best outlet for personal care and growth at this time,” she continues. “But one of these days, I’m going to get back to painting landscapes and maybe even get a pottery wheel and fire pottery in an earthen kiln I’ll make myself! Check back in … in fifteen years, haha.”

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