This is definitely not Jenna Wadsworth’s first campaign. She was first elected to public office at age 21 to the Wake County Soil and Water Board of Supervisors. She was the youngest woman ever elected to public office in North Carolina. Jenna is now running statewide for Commissioner of Agriculture to expand on all of the good work she’s done at the local level. Jenna has been busy working, running a campaign, and planting on her family’s farm.
She took the time out of her busy schedule to chat with our Program Manager Devon Roberts.
Why are you running for Commissioner of Agriculture?
I grew up on a family farm in Johnston County and I really valued the importance of agriculture in North Carolina and in establishing so much of what we consider to be the foundation of our state, our universities, and our communities. As someone who has been elected to the Soil and Water Board in Wake County for nearly a decade now, I’m proud to say we’ve done groundbreaking work with our farmers. There is so much missing at the state level. There is work to be done. For the last fifteen years, the person in this office has prioritized PAC checks from big polluters, factory farms, and industries that care more about profits than people. That’s not okay. We deserve better. This fall, people can have someone better: someone who will support small family farmers and move agriculture into this century.
What can the government do to help women and families now and into the future?
The pandemic has shown us some of these festering issues that need to be dealt with as a result of our new reality. The food system is breaking down. The supply chain is breaking down. We need to shift how we produce and consume meat. We need to support small family farmers who provide local jobs and who have also been heroic in making sure people can put food on tables. We’ve become accustomed to quick, cheap, and easy food. We don’t realize the value we should give to products that have been morally, ethically, and sustainably produced. I’m also a vocal advocate for fighting climate change, which will be at the forefront of people’s minds if we have a terrible hurricane season that could leave us facing even more deleterious consequences to food production.
This pandemic has also brought to light the way we treat farmworkers and the issues with not providing them a pathway to citizenship. Now we’ve closed borders, resulting in a smaller labor pool, meaning we’re asking farmworkers to work even harder to address these food shortages our state and our country are facing. Immigrants are scared not to show up to work, even if they’re sick, because their immigration status or work visa could be put into jeopardy. What’s happening in the meat processing plants shows we don’t respect our workers. We must talk about a living wage for frontline workers.
One key issue is bridging the urban-rural divide. We must invest in rural healthcare and expand Medicaid. We have to move away from healthcare tied to employment. If you don’t have access to healthcare, you can’t be a productive citizen. We need to invest in rural broadband to allow farmers to compete in the global marketplace. Farmers with the internet can make direct sales and build a brand that entices consumers. Before this pandemic, we shouldn’t have had children sitting in parking lots to access free wifi to do their homework. Now that school, work, and medical services have moved online, we’ve seen how lack of access to the internet has further exacerbated disparities between our urban and rural communities.
What do you hope to accomplish for women and families?
Rural broadband and healthcare will benefit all families. One in five children in North Carolina are food insecure. That’s a crime for a state that produces so much food. Most farmers just want to be good neighbors and they need the opportunity to funnel food into the food system to families in need. Broadband is key to tackling food insecurity because a lot of WIC and SNAP recipients need to go online to apply or if they want to shop online for safety reasons. I could work with federal leaders to revise WIC and SNAP to allow for a larger percentage of locally grown food to be used in these programs. I would love to work with our education leaders to increase funding for school gardens that teach children how to grow their own food.
Do you think there are any advantages or disadvantages to being a woman on the campaign trail?
People underestimate you, especially as a young woman and as a LGBTQ person. I don’t look like what most people think a farmer looks like. That’s one reason why they’re blown away when they hear how passionate I am about what we can do. They’re not expecting it. I’’l say it’s different campaigning as a woman. There are concerns that most male candidates don’t think about. I had to have staffers with me because people have followed me to my car or made me feel uncomfortable. I have men who send me direct messages online that are very inappropriate about my appearance. It’s no secret that every female candidate is highly scrutinized for her appearance and held to a different standard. I’ve even had people donate to the campaign and then email me that I need to change my makeup or cut my hair to look older or wear my glasses to be taken more seriously. The one bright spot of this pandemic has been, I would argue, a lessor emphasis on every aspect of a candidate’s look and wardrobe because we’re spending all of our time on Zoom, staring at pixelated versions of folks from the shoulders up.
Why are you a champion of reproductive freedom and gender equity?
Because it’s the right thing to do! Women’s rights are human rights and we should treat them that way. I’m an unapologetic feminist and I have a degree in Women’s and Gender Studies. I have served on boards that advance women’s rights. This fight is personal. This fight affects all of us. We have a responsibility, as people in power, to speak out for what is right and what is just.
What are you doing to find joy right now?
One of my favorite places is my family farm. It’s beautiful in any season but I’ve always loved planting my spring and summer garden. I’ve spent considerably more time out there as a result of the pandemic. It’s great for my mental health to put my hands in the soil. I’ve planted 45 rows of fruits and vegetables and pruned fruit trees and grapevines. I encourage people to plant victory gardens. Back during World War II, it got to the point where 40% of our food was being grown at home. It reduced greenhouse gas emissions from growing and transporting produce on a large scale. It reduces emissions expelled in packaging. People taking a small role in agriculture allows them to appreciate the work our farmers do for us and gives them a greater understanding about why it’s important to eat seasonally and locally. We need to go back to our roots. I find great joy in farming with my father and I look forward to our harvest. I’m also eager to see attitudes change about what we should be prioritizing in this state—and I’m hopeful that’s becoming the case for how we think about our food.