Barbara Zheutlin works to connect Berkshire farms to dining tables
For years Barbara Zheutlin and her cousin Francis Morris created gingerbread houses for auction in the annual competition in Lenox sponsored by Wheatleigh resort to benefit Berkshire Grown's Share the Bounty program.
One year they made a Santa Fe-style house; another year they made a pagoda complete with candy stream, bridge and rock garden.
This apparent foot note is important because it exemplifies how Zheutlin works as the executive director of Berkshire Grown. She connects (with Wheatleigh), she participates (in the contest), she collaborates (by making her house with Morris rather than on her own), and she shares (by giving away rather than keeping her creation).
Zheutlin joined Berkshire Grown in 2004 as a volunteer to direct the Share the Bounty program. It raises money to buy shares in local community supported agriculture (CSA) farms to benefit area food pantries, meal sites and the Women, Infants, and Children program (WIC).
Her life partner, Jonathan Hankin, a real estate agent, came up with the Share the Bounty idea after the two bought their own CSA share and he wanted to make them available to people who could not normally afford them.
Zheutlin implemented Hankin's idea.
"It is a way to support local farmers as well as help feed some of our hungry neighbors," she said.
Laurily Epstein, Berkshire Grown president, then asked Zheutlin to join the board and later hired her "I had admiration for the Share the Bounty program, the simplicity of it, but it takes someone to implement the program, to put it into action," Epstein said.
Zheutlin was that person.
"I have a very mixed background," she explained. "My life is this really interesting story about how to make more social justice and peace in the world. My personal background is as an organizer and writer in L.A. I'm always on the idealistic side. I am also a kid of the '60s."
Born in California in 1949, Zheutlin was the oldest of five children. Her father was a radiologist, her mother a registered nurse who was a stay-at-home mom while Zheutlin was growing up. Her mother later became a practicing clinical psychologist as did one of Zheutlin's brothers and, eventually, she herself.
Zeutlin graduated from the University of California in Santa Cruz in 1973 with a degree in history and filmmaking, "because I saw [documentary] films as the way to change the world."
She created politically progressive documentaries for a number of years then went back to school in late 1980s for a master's in clinical psychology.
"I did private practice and halftime work for this peace center," she said. "My goal was to help my clients feel better and get better."
In 1993, Zheutlin's cousin, David Lippman, reintroduced her to Hankin, who had been Lippman's college roommate.
The first time Zheutlin visited Hankin, who is also a photographer and architect, she said she thought, "Jonathan has created a life around creating beauty and I have created a life around responding to pain. Jonathan's dream was to leave L.A. I'm very involved there."
She worked as a psychotherapist and a community organizer in Los Angeles until 1994 when she gave her clients and the peace group notice and the couple left California.
"We traveled for a year in a used Suburban," Zheutlin said. "I was in my 40s. I wanted to clean my slate. I had spent all of my life trying to end war and create a better life.
I was looking for how to make the world better in a different way. It was a surprise to end up here."
It happened after they spent six months house- sitting for Lippman and his wife Honey Sharp in 1995-96. They bought a " fixer- upper" in Great Barrington and began a Berkshire life of their own.
"It was a house we moved - from the mid-1800s - just a shell of a house. I fell in love with the pastoral landscape of the Berkshires," Zheutlin said.
" I'm a work- oriented person," she went on, describing her career here before joining Berkshire Grown. " I volunteered at Schumacher Society [now named New Economics Institute], I worked doing research at Riggs for 10 years, worked at Orion Magazine."
Epstein encouraged Zheutlin to apply for the director's job at Berkshire Grown.
"Barbara is truly passionate about supporting farmers and about increasing everyone's access to local food - including people dealing with hunger and poverty," said Berkshire Grown outreach worker Sheryl Lechner.
Under Zheutlin's leadership, Berkshire Grown started a May " Farmed and Foraged" weekend in 2009 to connect farmers, foragers and restaurateurs so diners could eat the earliest fresh produce available in the Berkshires.
That September they added "Preserving the Bounty" workshops, again connecting farmers with restaurants and caterers and the public.
One of Zheutlin's pet projects has been the late season pre- holiday markets that extend the selling season for farmers and the fresh, local buying season for shoppers. The success of the markets in Great Barrington and Williamstown is the kind of growth Zheutlin believes in.
"I look at the connections between people and issues," she said. "I see how strengthening a community comes from a holiday market. I see people's response to each other and to delicious food. The holiday markets are one of the most delicious ways to strengthen our local economy."
" She came here knowing nothing about running a local agricultural program but in the last six years has connected with so many people and groups, locally and all over the state," Epstein said. " She brought her lifelong belief in social justice. No matter what area she chooses to work in, that is her goal."
About Berkshire Grown
Mission: Berkshire Grown supports and promotes local agriculture as a vital part of the Berkshire community, economy and landscape.
Headquarters are at 314 Main St., Great Barrington; (413) 528 0041; or visit http://berkshiregrown.org.
Annual March Maple Dinner is Monday at 6 p.m. at Cranwell Resort in Lenox. Tickets are by reservation only.
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