BY JENNY TOTTEN, COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT COORDINATOR, THE HUB
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Some of you may remember Robert “Taco Man” Diaz from the New Story event at the state fairgrounds last year. He spent two days slinging delicious tacos with some young help and provided entertainment for all! Since then, this McDowell County resident has made some big strides toward helping youth reimagine and reinvent the foodways of the southern coalfields.
Robert finished up his AmeriCorps VISTA year with WVU Extension last summer. During this AmeriCorps experience, he kept insisting that he never wanted to teach full time. Still, he always gravitated toward working with the teenagers in 4H and school programming.
Next up on Robert’s list was to help with planning and executing the McDowell County local foods dinner sponsored by the McDowell County Convention and Visitor’s Bureau and the West Virginia Food and Farm Coalition. Robert and his daughter Abby knocked it out of the park as 30 dinner attendees climbed Miracle Mountain and enjoyed a delicious evening with a gorgeous view of the county. Attendees came from near and as far away as Putnam County for this experience, and it was decided that these dinners would become a regular occurrence to be held around the county.
During this same time, the cooking instructor position at the McDowell County Career and Technical Center was vacated and the school board was looking for a fresh new perspective on this class.
(Remember the part where Robert said he never wanted to teach?)
Well, Robert applied for the position, and walked in with a plan to teach teenagers how to truly cater and prepare meals using fresh ingredients. He was offered the position!
Robert has been instructing at the center since late last fall and is now starting to incorporate both entrepreneurship and farm to table concepts in his lessons.
The two classes have set up their own business – the Wild Thyme Café – and are busy preparing salads and other offerings. He’s in the middle of refurbishing a small greenhouse on site, and his classroom resembles a mix between and school garden and a jungle as he teaches his students to both grow their food and utilize it in recipes.
Robert is helping to rewrite the narrative of coal country and West Virginia as a whole by inspiring our next generation workforce to explore the creative economy and to push the limits of what’s possible in our communities.
He’s helping youth preserve the food and agriculture ways of Appalachia while looking toward the future.