Zella Christenson | The Queen of Food Studies

Yasmin Gulec
(Photo by Katie Peurrung)

Sounds of laughter and the smell of Thanksgiving dinner oozed out of the apartment where NYU Navigator’s all-girl Bible study group hosts its weekly meeting. While the group usually meets up to go over a different chapter of the Bible, this week’s meeting focused on gathering and sharing gratitude over good food cooked by Zella.

The Navigators munched on the meal of perfectly glazed rotisserie chicken, mac and cheese, sweet potatoes, brussel sprouts and spinach salad with pomegranate vinaigrette. Among all this food was the piece de resistance; a perfectly golden crusted warm apple crumble with scoops of vanilla ice cream that slowly melted from the crumble’s heat: a beauty. The girls shared stories about their days as they devoured the dessert, gently smiling. One of the members said “My stomach and heart [are] full.”

Steinhardt senior Zella Christenson was especially grateful that Thursday night for the Food Studies department in which she studies and works as a Purchasing Manager.

“I am thankful for my job that works my brain,” Zella shared after a spoonful of crumble and vanilla ice cream.

Left: A small kale plant in the Urban Food Lab. Right: Zella Christenson picks herbs for the day’s classes. (Photos by Katie Peurrung)

Zella shares food stories similar to this all the time. Her passion for food was evident in her enthusiasm in class, inspiring adjunct professor Lourdes Castro to offer Zella a position as a teaching assistant in the Introduction to Foods and Food Science course when she was only a first-year.

“Zella is one of those people who is wise beyond her years, is tenacious and incredibly empathetic,” Castro said.

In the classroom, Zella took the initiative to single-handedly create the department’s first composting program within a month of starting her job. Across the seven sections of the Food Science course, around 140 students diced peppers, sliced potatoes and minced garlic just for their knife skills exam, all of which were thrown away shortly after. Zella started taking the scraps to the Union Square Farmers Market to compost.

“I was rolling home with a cart I had stolen from the kitchen,” Zella said. “50 pounds of compost in my dorm and my roommates being like ‘Zella, this is too far.’”

Zella Christenson holds herbs freshly picked from the Urban Food Lab in one hand, and her scooter in the other, which she uses to get around New York City during the small breaks in her busy schedule. (Photo by Katie Peurrung)

Eventually, Zella realized that this wasn’t a one-person job. She invited students who had classes in the food lab of the Department of Nutrition and Food Studies to come on weekly trips to the farmers market and had composting bins placed in the food lab. From there, the Compost Crusaders were born, changing the conversation on waste and sustainability within the department.

“That is such an important part of programming, it shouldn’t be dependant on a singular person,” she said. “To have a sustainable program it should be able to function without that person being there.”

Zella saw the Compost Crusaders thrive by themselves when she left to study abroad in Argentina the spring of her sophomore year. Argentina became her favorite place that she lived in for an extended period of time.

“I love uprooting and I think so much growth happens when you are out of your comfort zone,” she said of her study abroad experience. Born into a military family, Zella is used to being far away from her family members and being on her own. “You learn to adapt, you learn to appreciate the wealth of culture, thoughts, ideas and perspectives that are in this world.”

Zella Christenson reorganizes the pots and pans in the Department of Nutrition and Food Studies Food Lab. Christenson previously worked more one-on-one with Food Lab students, but now primarily works behind-the-scenes. (Photo by Katie Peurrung)

For Zella, there is so much more potential for growth outside of New York. With her post-graduation plans in mind, she applied to the Peace Corps, one of the many options she is considering for her future.

“With my interest in Food Studies and Spanish, that generally translates into is being interested in international development, looking at different trade policies and how policy impacts food systems,” Zella said, dwelling on the calming effect that an organized future has.

Zella’s interest in food and food policy stems from her past experiences. She used to model in her hometown of Denver and eventually moved to New York to pursue modeling for a year, deferring her acceptance to NYU. After walking for major shows like Yves Saint Laurent’s at Paris Fashion Week, she realized that this was not her calling.

Although Zella came to NYU set to become a dietitian, as she strayed away from the modeling world, she found that her heart didn’t desire the world of nutrition. Instead, it craved the world of food.

“It is kind of hard not to be hyper-aware of what you are eating and putting in your body [as a model] and so it was a genuine interest in nutrition,” said Zella. “I love food, I was never on any super crazy diets but I was just hyper-aware of what I was eating.”

Zella Christenson stands in the Department of Nutrition and Food Studies Food Lab, where she works as a teacher’s assistant. The industrial-sized kitchen welcomes hundreds of students a week, and Christenson makes sure they have the ingredients for each week’s course work. (Photo by Katie Peurrung)

Her interest in food and Spanish mushroomed her first year when she went on an Alternative Breaks trip to Ecuador after randomly signing up for it at Club Fest. She realized the privilege she had and how that fits into her naive but genuine desire to make a positive impact in the world.

“We were looking at the way people in Ecuador were relating to food and how it was so fundamentally different than how people in the U.S. relate to food,” Zella said. “So that was one of the major pushes, maybe I need to rethink how I want to be approaching this interest, how I am interested in food.”

After she returned from studying abroad in Argentina, she became the president of the Community Agriculture Project as a junior, a club she had joined as a first-year because she was impressed with the homemade salsa they offered during Club Fest. There, she got to interact with others interested in food production and sustainability.

“I think enthusiasm gets me a lot of places in life,” Zella said reflecting back on not only her leadership role in the club but also the jobs she was offered in the Food Lab. “I was just very enthusiastic to be there and I jump into commitments wholeheartedly.”

For their Bible study group, Zella Christenson prepares Friendsgiving dinner with another member. (Photo by Katie Peurrung)

During her junior year, she started working at Steinhardt’s Urban Food Lab as the purchasing manager. She is responsible for purchasing and organizing ingredients for the Food Lab, making sure all classes run smoothly.

“It’s been really cool to learn and to grow in this environment and to feel like I have a job that is meaningful,” Zella shared. “Every time I get overwhelmed with work I try to remind myself what an opportunity it is to have a student job that is applicable to what I want to be doing.”

For Zella, food is a gift. She finds it miraculous that something that is so fundamental to life can taste so good.

“There is nothing I love more than going to the farmer’s market and seeing this gorgeous bounty,” Zella said, her eyes lighting up. “For me, it is God’s creation and his creativity in being able to gift us with this joyous experience in fulfilling this biological necessity. I love the capacity to transform food and how in ways people do that connects to culture, connects to family and nostalgia.”

At the end of the meal, Zella Christenson and fellow members of the Bible study group sit in a circle and share what they are grateful for. (Photo by Katie Peurrung)

While some feel closer to God when they are in nature, Zella feels closer to him when she sees food — similar to the love and care that goes into cooking. Zella feels God’s love for people every time she experiences God’s artistry with food.

With this belief in mind, upon a suggestion from her Bible study leader Leann Sebald, she worked as the chef for a nine-week Navigators program in Boston. She is also a Bible study group leader for the NYU Navigators where she leads study every week and creates a space filled with support and gratitude.

“Zella is a go-getter, committed and all in for the things she’s passionate about,” Sebald said. “When I think of her, this verse from the Bible comes to mind, ‘He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?’ These are things that Zella fights to embody and I love that about her.”

Zella wants to reach as many people as she can using food as a means of connecting and sharing new experiences with them. She aims to combine her academics with her zeal to connect with people and spread love.

“My heart is invested in seeing people be well fed,” Zella said. “I can’t separate that desire from people being well fed spiritually because there is so much nourishment in community, in understanding how deeply and profoundly God loves us.”

Email Yasmin Gulec at [email protected]A version of this article appeared in the Thursday, Dec. 6 print edition. Read more from Washington Square News’ “Influential 2018” special issue.

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