Grateful for Community Support: A Conversation with Alumna Lexi Mestas

It’s Thanksgiving season, and the time for giving thanks is nigh. But something often left out of the annual Thanksgiving dinner go-around — “what are you grateful for?” — is professional development. I get it. Family and friends, good food and laughter. These are all reasons to rejoice and are valid answers. But let’s not discount the importance of knowledge being passed down, networking, and the abundance of informal learning opportunities that arise for many FoodCorps service members throughout their service.

FoodCorps alumna Lexi Mestas, dressed as an apple.

During this season of giving thanks, I sat down with FoodCorps New Jersey alum, Lexi Mestas, who served with Cooper’s Ferry Partnership in Camden, New Jersey, and who worked closely with various community partners as part of the Campbell’s Healthy Communities Partnership. Through this work, Lexi gained valuable professional skills which led her to her current position with SNAP-Ed and Rutgers Cooperative Extension. We chatted about how her work with Campbell’s has guided her career, and where she hopes to go from here.

Hayley: Describe what community support meant to you during your service.

Lexi: The idea of community support was weaved throughout nearly every aspect of my service. From my service site to the Campbell’s Healthy Communities Partnership to my school, community support was an essential characteristic that positively shaped my FoodCorps experience. The Collective Impact model was the machine that drove such collaboration. The model is based on the premise that choosing collaboration and cooperation rather than competition can mutually benefit organizations providing similar services as well as participants and recipients. Simply put, I was never alone in my service, receiving support from partner organizations such as the Center for Environmental Transformation, Camden Special Services District, The Food Bank of South Jersey, Wellness in the Schools, and The Food Trust for garden lessons, cooking classes, and community events. Similarly, I had the opportunity to support their programming as well, getting to dip my toes into workspaces outside my typical service day from helping with Heart Smarts at corner stores to bagging after school snacks with the Food Bank of South Jersey. This also applies to my school community, who taught me everything I needed to know about KIPP and its culture to succeed. Without the guidance of the school’s teaching leadership, my lessons would never have been as impactful. Without a doubt, community support was the cornerstone of my service experience, making much of what I achieved at my service site possible.

As someone who has always thrived off of exploring and creating new ideas for my environment, working with my numerous partners throughout service provided me the tools to execute them, highlighting the importance of working together, knowing your community, and the organizations serving it.

Hayley: How has your experience working with these different partners influenced your career aspirations and professional development? How has it led you to, or influenced, your current position?

Lexi leading a class in partnership with Google Classroom, taking students on a virtual farm field trip.

Lexi: I had the opportunity of serving in one of FoodCorps’ most unique sites as I was positioned between a non-profit development association, a public charter school, and a corporate partnership. As a result, I learned a great deal about the inner workings of each as well as the key role partnership and collaboration plays in achieving goals for the community. In addition to skills of cooperation, networking, and grant reporting, I learned a significant amount about Camden. Coming from New Orleans, I have experience living and working in an urban setting with the city’s homeless initiative and neighborhood facilities and services. I have witnessed the obstacles the city faces while also knowing the passion, love, and belief New Orleans’s residents have for their city. I learned this same spirit of resilience from my partners as well as their passion for working to create a better Camden for all of its residents. As someone who has always thrived off of exploring and creating new ideas for my environment, working with my numerous partners throughout service provided me the tools to execute them, highlighting the importance of working together, knowing your community, and the organizations serving it. As such, I am currently working with Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Camden County as a SNAP-Ed Program Associate, providing me the opportunity to continue learning about Camden, those who serve it, and those who I serve.

Hayley: What’s your fondest memory of working within this partnership? Is there an event or meeting that really stands out?

Lexi and fellow FoodCorps service member Theo handing out samples with Wellness in the Schools (WITS).

Lexi: There are many parts of service that I will always hold dear: Entering a classroom or the cafeteria to an abundance of waves and hugs from my students, receiving advice from my site supervisor, and spending a few quiet hours doing garden maintenance. However, my fondest memory of the partnership was our monthly meetings at Campbell’s Headquarters. During this meeting, the entire collaborative would join to share their monthly successes, call upon one another for support, and learn about various organizations we could partner with. It was a uniquely different activity from my daily routine that provided me the opportunity to use my educational background in political science and sustainable food studies outside of direct education. It was a great experience that challenged and prepared me for my current position, connecting and collaborating with numerous organizations to achieve grant deliverables.

During this season of  gratitude, we are so grateful for our partnership with the Campbell Soup Company. They have been longtime supporters of FoodCorps, enabling service members like Lexi to have profound professional development experiences during their year of service. To date, our partnership has helped support 12 service members deliver hands-on nutrition education and create healthier futures for students in New Jersey, Connecticut, and Michigan.