If there's one thing proved by Jungletown—VICELAND's show about attempting to build a sustainable community, Kalu Yala, within the Panamanian jungle—it's that building a sustainable community isn't easy. Along with the already strenuous living and working conditions, it's an experience that's impossibly trying, as culinary arts intern Gianna Sinopoli eventually learned. Struggling with a handful of allergies, including a severe gluten intolerance, Sinpoli's passion for food and sustainability brought her to Kalu Yala with hopes of a farm-to-table education, as well as a community she could thrive in and contribute to.
But while Kalu Yala promised to be an idealistic place, it proved to be anything but. "It was such an obstacle all the time," she told VICE on the phone, regarding her food allergies. "I was never fully able to get out of that survival mode and participate or contribute in a meaningful way, because I was only able to think, 'OK, how am I going to feed myself?'" Despite the isolation and frustration, Sinpoli powered through weeks at Kalu Yala before returning home to Massachusetts. We caught up with the former intern to talk about loving something you can't always have, her decision to leave Kalu Yala, and her take on the goat sacrifice in this week's episode.
VICE: You were a culinary arts intern at Kalu Yala. What was that experience like?
Gianna Sinopoli: I had actually been looking at Kalu Yala for almost two years—I Googled "farm-to-table internships" when I was still in college and wanted to do something different. I had worked in food service, so I was looking for something where I could put that skill to use as it relates to sustainability. When I first applied [to Kalu Yala], it was labeled as farm-to-table, and when I spoke to the culinary director at the time, I went over [my allergies], and it didn't seem to be a problem—it actually seemed like it would work out because it was farm-to-table.
After I arrived, I found out that the staff had been talking amongst themselves about how it'd be better if I didn't come that semester. The kitchen was frustrated because they had 120 people to feed and weren't equipped for my allergies. I was lucky that they were expanding to an outdoor space, because the program director was comfortable with me cooking outside so I wouldn't have to work in the space and be around the flour. But for the most part, I never really got to participate in the program because I spent most of my time cooking and trying to sustain myself. Cleaning and keeping everything separate would take a lot of time as well. By the time I had it all cleaned up, I'd have to be prepping for the next meal, so I never even really had the opportunity to participate in the program.
You said that you had to cook for yourself because it's the only way you knew you wouldn't get sick, which had to be isolating, too.
It was a real challenge to sustain myself and find the food that I could eat. It's hard to explain the challenges of being in that environment—going into the city was not like going to the grocery store, here. At one point, I hiked out with a different group so that I could find food that I could eat. It was just such an obstacle all the time, and I was never fully able to get out of that survival mode or contribute in a meaningful way. I was only able to think, "How am I going to feed myself?" I also didn't realize at the time that I had a lot more health issues going on than I realized, and being in that environment pushed me even closer to them.
Despite your severe situation, you have a passion for food. What sparked that?
I grew up in kitchens. My family cooked dinner every night, and I didn't realize how rare that was until I went off to college. I grew up in Cape Cod totally surrounded by the tourist and food industries, so this is my passion. Since I was legally able to, I've always worked in food service. I love it. A few years ago, when I found out I was gluten intolerant, I started learning more about nutrition—since I wasn't going to be eating certain foods, I needed to substitute in a way that was healthy. I thought I'd become a nutritionist to help other people with food allergies.
Was Kalu Yala a stepping stone towards that?
Yeah. Right out of college, I moved to a farm to learn more about that end of things—I knew a lot of the kitchen stuff, but I didn't really know how to grow anything. One thing led to another, and I attended a sustainable food conference in Vermont and started learning even more about how amazing organic farming is and why it's so important. I've been interested in it ever since, because I think every chef should know exactly where the food is coming from and have direct contact with it.
In this week's episode, the interns kill a goat and people change their eating habits because of it. Do you feel like any of your habits changed because of Kalu Yala?
Before things got so much worse with my health and I could still eat certain things, I actually found it really powerful to watch the sacrifice. I felt more comfortable eating meat because I'd played with the goat and watched the sacrifice. I thought that was a powerful experience. It's given me a better appreciation of where food comes from, and it was really overwhelming to me when I got home. The first time my mom and I went to a farmer's market—which was less than 10 minutes away from our house—was so powerful after being in a place where, after a two hour hike, you might find a tomato on a good day.
Talk about your experience with diversity at Kalu Yala.
It was really obvious and upsetting, and it plays into the larger issue that Kalu Yala's facing. It's trying to be this sustainable place, but there's so much right there, including the local community, that they're just not tapping into. Having food allergies made it easier for me to decide to leave—I was grappling with the decision to leave anyway because of some of those issues. Once I arrived there, it became really apparent that it wasn't all that it was advertised to be.
What did you take away from Kalu Yala?
It definitely affected my health a lot, but at the same time, now that I'm forced to deal with it, I'm glad because I'm going to find the answers one way or another. I love traveling and experiencing different places, climates, and cultures, so I was disappointed that the cooking and the education was basically what you'd get here—only there [ Laughs]. It's like studying abroad only to hang out with Americans. There's a lot of opportunities here as well, it's just about finding them.
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You can catch Jungletown on VICELAND. Find out how to watch here.