Taking on a New Role With Ivelisse Colón

— Written By

Orange County’s unique landscape includes dense urban areas and open rural spaces. Like other counties across the state, Orange County has lost several farms over the past couple of decades. However, there is a resurgence of local production and interest in homegrown foods and farm visits. According to recent USDA Agriculture Census data, agritourism has increased 167% since 2012. There are over 350 new and beginning farmers, over 130 farms that sell direct to consumers, and three farmers markets in the County. Orange is one of the counties in North Carolina with the highest number of female farmers; 489 of them.

Not everybody has access to locally produced food; 15.4% of Orange County households are food insecure. Orange County has the highest Gini Coefficient of Income Inequality in North Carolina (0.52); the country’s Gini Coefficient in 2019 was 0.48. This coefficient measures income inequality and wealth distribution, meaning that the County experiences high-income dispersion, where fewer people hold a lot of capital and many people hold little capital. This makes food access an important area for the N.C. Cooperative Extension of Orange County office.

Ivelisse Colon is an Extension Agent in Orange County.

Ivelisse Colon is an Extension Agent in Orange County.

Ivelisse Colón has worked for N.C. Cooperative Extension since 2010. For the past three years, she has served as the Family and Consumer Sciences (FCS) Agent in Orange County. She recently added on the role of Local Food Coordinator for the County. In this role she focuses on nutrition, health, food safety, food preservation, healthy homes, healthy living, and local foods systems. She enjoys having the opportunity to engage with and provide education for all residents in the community; from children to seniors, from the school to the business owner. “I love to engage with others, teaching, and working to improve people’s lives. I love seeing the smiles on people’s faces when they achieve something because they learned it from Extension.”

“Being a new Local Foods Coordinator I have worked on educating myself to better understand a part of the food system that didn’t exist in the traditional nutrition/dietetics professional training. I took all three courses of the Overview of Local Food Systems Training Program and began partnering with agencies that value the importance of an equitable food system, even before I was a local food coordinator. Did I feel lost? Yes. Did I learn? A lot.”

Her main programs used to be food safety education for food safety managers at businesses and schools, and healthy eating for the general public. Her work has shifted during the Covid-19 pandemic; now she is more focused now on food accessibility initiatives in the county while trying to maintain some healthy eating programs.

“Since I’m a people person, the COVID-19 pandemic has been very hard on me. My energy comes from the interaction with people, so this past year has been one with a lot of challenges. Our office is closed to the public, so we decided to offer appointments to address the needs of our constituents while practicing physical distancing. We also have just a few employees coming to the office on certain days. This has helped me maintain contact while following pandemic recommendations. I think this year could be better.”

Facing big challenges, Ivelisse was creative with her programming. Beginning summer of 2020, she joined efforts with the Orange County Partnership for Young Children to provide kids with a project that could be done either at home or at the early education center they were attending. The purpose was to assist caretakers and parents in providing their children with science and nutrition education, while they learned the social skills of collaboration and teamwork through a seed project called the “Three Sisters Garden”. As a bonus, this project could provide local food for the families and centers that were struggling so much with a lack of revenue and job loss.

Three Sisters, squash, beans, and corn, at Mi Escuelita Spanish Immersion Preschool Garden.

Three Sisters, squash, beans, and corn, at Mi Escuelita Spanish Immersion Preschool Garden.

She worked with 15 early childhood centers to help distribute about 500 seed kits. The kits included pole bean, popcorn, and squash/pumpkin seeds, instructions on how to plant and harvest the food, information about the Three Sisters crop legends from the Native Americans, and links for read-a-loud stories about the topic. She established a private Facebook page and created videos on how to plant, harvest, and prepare the food. It was difficult to follow-up with families and centers because of the overwhelming circumstances they were experiencing. Even with this setback, she received positive feedback from some of the centers and families through photos and messages and is excited to continue this work.

Looking forward, Ivelisse is excited to engage more people with their local food system. “I believe the future of local foods in North Carolina will expand more from the soil to the consumer. Many still think about local foods and a room full of farmers, but the Local Food System doesn’t stop when the food is harvested; it continues with those who eat the food and enjoy it. I believe that to have a more stable system, we need to engage families and individuals in the food system. After all, it is a system! A set of things working together.”


Ivelisse’s Favorite Local Food Recipe

“I found a nice recipe made with local foods the first time I taught a home food preservation class; it is Blueberry-Lime Jam from the Ball® Blue Book Guide to Preserving. I didn’t use to eat jam or blueberries since they are not a staple in my country. But once I made this recipe I was enamored with it. I put it on everything I can when the blueberry season comes.”

Here it is:
Blueberry-Lime Jam from Ball® Blue Book Guide to Preserving

This is a delicious and refreshing jam, perfect for preserving this summer fruit we love. Serve it over crackers, with bread, or over pancakes. You won’t regret it! (process it with the Boiling Water Bath canning method)

Ingredients:

4 ½ Cups blueberries
6 tablespoons Ball® Classic Pectin
5 cups sugar
1 tablespoon grated lime peel
1/3 cup lime juice

Directions:
Crush blueberries one layer at a time. Combine crushed blueberries with pectin in a large saucepot. Bring to a boil, stirring frequently. Add sugar, stirring until dissolved. Stir in grated lime peel and juice. Return to a rolling boil. Boil hard for one minute, stirring constantly. Remove from heat. Skim foam if necessary. Ladle hot jam into hot jars, leaving ¼-inch headspace. Adjust two-piece cap. Process for 15 minutes in a boiling-water canner.