The Thursday before Thanksgiving, Friends Hall was decorated with squashes, pine branches, leaves and baskets, along with food facts written on cardboard to spread information about the food industry and food consumption. This was all for Sustainable Thanksgiving, an event sponsored by 1STEP. Students and professors alike filed in to enjoy the vegetarian dinner and hear Eric Fuchs-Stengel of Mahwah Environmental Volunteers Organization (MEVO) and the Rockland Forager share their knowledge, ideas and projects with those in attendance.
MEVO is a not-for-profit organization that was started by Fuchs-Stengel when he was 16 years old. Fuchs-Stengel showed enthusiasm for sustainability during his speech. He commanded the room with his loud voice and down-to-earth speaking style, telling those in attendance that he ended up where he is today by engaging with the local community, as well as political organizations.
He explained that he was never discouraged by the answer "no." Fuchs-Stengel pushed against those who oppressed him, making measurable progress in his community by cleaning literal tons of trash from a common illegal dumping ground a few minutes from Ramapo College called Stag Hill, beginning when he was still in high school.
Now MEVO has both an "earth crew," which cleans up the environment and builds trails, and a "farm crew," which has built many gardens in the community, as well as an above-ground farm at Bergen Community College. Since receiving the NJ Heroes award from Mary Pat Christie, Chris Christie’s wife, MEVO has been gifted with a two-acre plot of land near Ramapo where they will be building another farm beginning this winter and spring.
Fuchs-Stengel's goal for MEVO, he explained at Sustainable Thanksgiving, is to be a model for sustainability—to inspire others to perform similar action in their own communities.
“Eric Fuchs-Stengel, from the Mahwah Environmental Volunteers Organization, was my favorite part about Sustainable Thanksgiving," said junior Tom Chupela. "His enthusiasm is always rad and it was nice hearing about what’s going on with MEVO, since I’m not always able to make it out to their events."
As people enjoyed vegetable lasagna with goat cheese and spinach, mushroom stuffing and braised sweet cabbage among other foods, the Rockland Forager took the stage. He spoke of his passion for wild foods and, more specifically, wild medicinal plants.
The Rockland Forager spoke of the healing power of local plants, many of which are right in our backyards, like dandelions and common plantains. Dandelion roots, he said, are a powerful detoxifying medicine and can be roasted and made into a coffee-like tea, reminiscent of caramel and chocolate. The young leaves, he added, make a tasty salad. The leaves of the common plantain, a plant which we have all seen but likely do not known the name of, is a potent external medicine that can be made into oils and salves and used to soothe stings, cuts, scrapes and rashes. Some plants he mentioned, like red clover and sheep sorrel, boast anti-cancer properties and again, can be found in our local environment.
The presenters stressed that sustainability is about more than reducing the damage that humans have inflicted upon the Earth; it is about understanding and balancing the relationship between humans, the Earth and our economic system. 1STEP made sure to consider all of these factors in planning the event —they urged attendees to bring their own plates, cups and silverware, reducing costs and waste. The vegetarian choices also helped to reduce cost and resources, without sacrificing flavor.
In addition to these cost-effective strategies, there was a communal vibe and an environmental focus that made this event memorable. The spirit of sustainability was certainly in the air at Sustainable Thanksgiving this year, thanks to all who planned, attended and spoke at the event.
“The Sustainable Thanksgiving event was great. As a vegan and a member of Plant Strong Ramapo, it was nice to see some creative ways to make vegan food for the holidays," said Rachel Britton an environmental studies major. "I was impressed by all the speakers. I especially liked the presentation by the Rockland Forager."
Additional reporting by Danielle Corcione