Monday, April 24, 2023
  Around Campus, Community

By Victoria Brito Morales

RIO GRANDE VALLEY, TEXAS – APRIL 24, 2023 – Plant-based cookbook. Podcast. Activism. 

Mackenzie Feldman, a graduate student in the UTRGV School of Earth, Environmental and Marine Sciences, come to the Valley all the way from Oahu, Hawai’i. She obviously likes to stay busy, and it’s all for a good cause: sustainable agriculture.

A 2016 trip to Cuba put the Rio Grande Valley on her map. There, she met Dr. Alexis Racelis, associate professor in the UTRGV School of Earth, Environmental and Marine Sciences. The rest just fell into place. 

“We really connected and I loved learning from him,” Feldman said. “He told me, ‘You know, if you ever want to go to graduate school, you should consider coming to UTRGV. We have a whole agroecology program.’ Until then, I hadn’t heard of the Valley or the school.”

Racelis gave her a cap with the UTRGV logo, so the thought of the Valley sort of stayed in her head. Then she heard him speak during an online webinar years later. That’s when she knew it was time to relocate to the Valley for graduate school to study sustainable agriculture. 

At the same time, she was running a nonprofit organization focused on eliminating toxic pesticides and transitioning campuses to organic land management.



Feldman earned an undergraduate degree in 2018 from the University of California, Berkeley, where she was recruited as a student athlete to the beach volleyball team. One day while practicing, someone told her something disturbing that made her want to take action. 

“I showed up for practice and the coach said, ‘If the ball rolls off the court, just let it go because an herbicide had been sprayed everywhere around the court,’” Feldman said. “When I heard that, I wanted to know what was sprayed and if we could do something about it.”

Feldman and a teammate spoke to the groundskeeper, only to find out that the chemical sprayed contained an active ingredient called glyphosate, which had been declared a probable carcinogen two years prior by the World Health Organization. 

“Essentially, they were spraying this chemical that is likely to cause cancer all around our court,” Feldman said. “I was told there was no staff to pick the weeds by hand, so they sprayed the chemical. But they said if our team wanted to pick the weeds, we could. So, we did.”

The incident spawned a much larger movement and formed a student group to ban herbicides from the entire campus. They brought in an organic expert to train campus groundskeepers on how to go organic. That campus is now 95% organic.

From that effort came Re:wild Your Campus, a nonprofit organization founded by Feldman. 

“We work with students and groundskeepers across the country to eliminate herbicides from college campuses,” Feldman said. “I'm really passionate about trying to rid communities of toxic chemicals.”

The campaign started in 2017, spread across California in 2018 and then expanded nationally in 2019. It is now made up of an all-woman team of six has worked with more than 30 schools in 16 states. The team meets remotely with students on participating campuses every other week and once a month for national calls to provide them with tools to carry out the campaign to be rid of toxic chemicals and “rewild” their campuses.

Feldman’s goal is to implement the campaign at UTRGV and at other universities in Texas. To make this happen, Mackenzie’s goal is for the UTRGV Office for Sustainability to apply for  Re:wild Your Campus’ recently launched Green Grounds Certification if the campus is at least 50% organically managed. Then, the Re:wild Your Campus team can assess where UTRGV stands and then access the expertise of the Re:wild Your Campus team to transition the campus to completely organic.

The goal of Re:wild Your Campus is to eliminate synthetic herbicides and pesticides from every school in the United States and transition these campuses to organic practices, while advocating for healthy soil, native plants and edible landscapes.



Feldman is now in the Agricultural, Environmental and Sustainability Sciences programs at UTRGV and is mentored by Racelis. Her graduate research at UTRGV includes cover cropping – a technique used in farming to preserve soil in the off-season by repurposing it off-season, and planting another crop over healthy soil. 

“We’re working with four farmers in the Valley to do cover cropping and our UTRGV team is studying everything from impact on yield, cost, soil health, soil moisture and insect diversity,” Feldman said. “I'm the only social scientist on the team and my research includes interviewing the farmers on why they opted to do cover cropping.”

She hopes to gather data on factors of adoption when it comes to cover cropping, if the practice makes sense for Valley farmers and, if so, how other farmers can find incentives to adopt the practice.

“It's considered a sustainable practice nationally, but the subtropical climate of the Valley makes farming here unique,” she said. “So, we want to see if farmers in the Valley reap the same benefits that we see across the country.” 

Feldman hopes to continue working with farmers after she graduates from UTRGV and further advance her passion for promoting sustainable farming. 

“I think I always see myself working in food systems, and I always want to be working on the pesticide issue, which is an issue that hits close to home for me, as Hawai’i is ground zero for industrial agriculture,” Feldman said. “My Hawaiian upbringing meant being surrounded by nature and a historical sense of responsibility to care for the natural world. I always see myself working on this issue.”

Feldman said she wants to use her experiences from UTRGV and from working with Valley farmers to be able to be an advocate for them.

“It's important to advance policies that help farmers transition to organic, regenerative agriculture,” she said.

When Racelis first met Feldman six years ago, he knew she was destined to make an impact on sustainable agriculture.

“Mackenzie has an unwavering commitment to sustainability and justice,” he said. “When you combine that with her tremendous sense of tenacity, drive, resolve and unbridled energy, you have an impressive list of accomplishments and impacts for such a young professional.”

Racelis said Feldman is deeply committed to understanding the issues and challenges agriculture presents through a justice-centered research lens.

“Her research findings here at UTRGV will help inform collaborative strategies that protect natural resources, while benefiting local farmers,” he said.



On top of everything else she has on her plate, Feldman also has a podcast, “Agenda 23: Food Conversations Between Generations,” which she cohosts with John Ikerd, a retired professor emeritus of agricultural economics from the University of Missouri and author of books on the economics of sustainable agriculture. 

In the podcast, Feldman and Ikerd discuss the Farm Bill, including the upcoming 2023 Farm Bill, and how everyday people can get engaged. They also discuss bills like the Protect America’s Children from Toxic Pesticides Act, introduced to Congress in 2021 and sponsored by U.S. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey.

Feldman also is co-author of a cookbook focused on plant-based, gluten-free fare, titled Groundbakers: 60+ Plant-Based Comfort Food Recipes and 16 Leaders Changing the Food Systems, which she wrote with her mother, Kathy Feldman. This book also includes interviews with 16 changemakers in the food system, including José Andrés, Leah Penniman, and Alice Waters. In the book, Mackenzie and Kathy discus facts including disproportionate access to land, importance of soil health and issues surrounding industrial fishing.

“It just came out this past fall,” Feldman said. “There is this idea that, if you're vegan, you can't eat all of your favorite foods – so we made it comfort food, but vegan. It has recipes like enchiladas, macaroni and cheese and even brownies.” 

Feldman also was a coordinator of the first Food Summit held at UTRGV as part of Earth Fest from April 19 – 21. 


The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV) was created by the Texas Legislature in 2013 as the first major public university of the 21st century in Texas. This transformative initiative provided the opportunity to expand educational opportunities in the Rio Grande Valley, including a new School of Medicine, and made it possible for residents of the region to benefit from the Permanent University Fund – a public endowment contributing support to the University of Texas System and other institutions.

UTRGV has campuses and off-campus research and teaching sites throughout the Rio Grande Valley including in Boca Chica Beach, Brownsville (formerly The University of Texas at Brownsville campus), Edinburg (formerly The University of Texas-Pan American campus), Harlingen, McAllen, Port Isabel, Rio Grande City, and South Padre Island. UTRGV, a comprehensive academic institution, enrolled its first class in the fall of 2015, and the School of Medicine welcomed its first class in the summer of 2016.