Ellen Griswold was lucky enough to land Maine Farmland Trust’s very first Wang Fellowship, to be given annually to “a young professional of great promise” with a commitment to improving our environment and our food system.” Named in honor of philanthropists David and Cecile Wang, it comes with $22,500 stipend, as well as office space and coverage for some expenses. During our conversation with Griswold about her plans for the next year we wandered onto to a few other topics, including the horror of Aunt Jemima’s Lite “syrup” and how her mother’s struggle with Alzheimer’s helped inspire a career switch.

BACK STORY: Griswold graduated from Brown in 2001 and went on to get her law degree from Georgetown in 2007. She practiced in Washington, D.C., working mostly on federal energy regulatory law. “I learned a lot and had great colleagues, but it never felt like just the right fit for me.” Then her mother, who lives in New Jersey, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and Griswold started reading everything she could about the disease. As she put two and two together, it seemed obvious in hindsight that her mother’s odd behavior in the previous years was Alzheimer’s-related. Like so many, she’d been frustrated and confused by that behavior, such as when after Griswold’s first child, a daughter who is now 6, was born and her mother couldn’t, or wouldn’t, get on the train to come visit. “I thought, that is so weird.”

FOOD FOR THOUGHT: One thing that she read about Alzheimer’s particularly intrigued her. Some researchers believe there is a connection between the modern diet, with its overwhelming content of highly processed foods, the corresponding spike in insulin and the plaque that builds up in the brain as a result of the insulin overload. “I just don’t think I was fully aware of diet-related diseases in this country, and I started reading a lot more.” She also started eying the elementary school across the street from her family’s home in Washington, observing the kinds of foods that were served to the students. Again, more highly processed foods. “All of these things were coming together as I was just thinking ‘What is this setting them up for in terms of their health?’ ”

HOME COOKING: Did she grow up eating a lot of processed foods? Are we talking TV dinners and such? “Yes. I would say that my husband, being the New Englander, still cringes that Aunt Jemima Lite is what we used. We never used real maple syrup. My mom was always focused on dieting.” And to be fair, Griswold’s mother was following the dietary guidelines of the time. “She thought she was doing the right thing. Everything was fat-free and had a lot of sugar.” Cooking for her own family, Griswold had already taken a different approach, even before delving into the research that would change her life. “Good solid produce just tastes better, right? I was starting to cook more and more with it and then it was this whole sort of movement that was catching on.”

THE LIGHT BULB: Her fascination with the subjects led to a decision to go back to school. She’s currently enrolled (as a distance student) in the Masters of Laws in Food and Agriculture Law Program at Vermont Law School. Her studies include national agricultural policy, global food security issues, and the regulation and policy of local food systems and the associated public health implications. And the family also relocated to Maine.

SHAKE IT UP: OK, that’s a lot of big moves. Why Maine? “My husband has always been in love with Maine.” He spent summers here growing up, went to Colby and has relatives in Dresden and in Portland. “We were coming to Maine a lot to visit them and every time we came, we thought, why don’t we live here? Portland is a really dynamic city with access to the outdoors, which is really important to us.” By this point she had a second daughter (who is almost 3), and it seemed like the time to make the leap. Her husband telecommutes to his branding and marketing work in D.C. And now Griswold has a fellowship. How did that come about?

OFFICE SPACE: Maine was calling. She loved the program at Vermont Law School, but felt a disconnect between where she was living and the emphasis on national issues at school. “Maine is a really interesting place for these issues because food and agriculture and fishing is such a cultural part of the state, but at the same time it is a state with high food insecurity and high rates of some of these diet-related diseases (like type 2 diabetes) … I really started to feel like I wanted to do something very Maine-focused.” Then she went to the opening of Maine Farmland Trust’s Portland office and met Amanda Beal, now the executive director of the nonprofit. Beal listened to Griswold talk about her background and interests and suggested she apply for the fellowship. Which she started a few weeks ago. “It all feels so lucky and random.”

REPORT CARD: Griswold has two projects going, one of which will look at institutional purchasing (schools, hospitals, nursing homes). “We’ll be looking at policies and programs in other states and seeing whether they could be replicated in Maine.” The other is creating a report on the state of Maine’s agriculture and fisheries, geared toward policy makers and legislators, but “accessible.” And yes, she knows there are already a lot of reports about Maine’s food economy. An example of how this will be different? The most recent farm census shows a big spike in poultry production in Maine (1,506 farms reported raising poultry in 2007; 2,260 in 2012), Griswold is trying to find out what caused the spike. If it was a policy change, is more growth something that could be encouraged with more of the same? “To me that is what is really exciting about this report, looking behind the numbers and collaborating with people” to get a fuller picture.

SO, GOOD MOVE? Is she happy to be in Maine? “Half the time I am driving around with my jaw open because I just can’t believe what a beautiful state this is.”

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