Whether you're just getting started in your professional life or you have some work experience under your belt, it's a great time to start thinking of the many career areas within the food sphere where you can make an impact. The path to working in sustainable food is different for everyone, and job options are only expanding - whether you prefer to get your hands dirty digging in the dirt, or gravitate more towards crunching numbers or crafting content behind a desk.
Civil Eats co-founder (and Ecocentric Hero!) Naomi Starkman is a terrific example of a varied and impressive path. After double majoring in international relations and German, Naomi earned a law degree, then held over four different positions before entering the sustainable food world. Here's what she has to say:
"I first became interested in food sustainability while working in publishing... at the New Yorker magazine in 2004. (O)ne of the events was a dinner with chefs Alice Waters, Peter Hoffman, Dan Barber and others. As a former urban gardener, and lover of all things eco, the green light bulb went off. It seemed to me that food might just be at the center of sustainability... I asked Alice about how to get involved and she told me about World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) and the agroecology program at UC Santa Cruz. Within three months I was WOOF'ing in Costa Rica. When I came back to New York, I apprenticed at Stone Barns while still working in Times Square until a year later, when I left NYC for good to farm full time at Helsing Junction Farm in Washington State." - Naomi Starkman
Whether you're a communications whiz like Naomi or have other talents, you'll find that you can tie food sustainability to nearly any skillset. So here are some of the major sectors of food sustainability you might consider, plus some ideas about how to get yourself there (including a few tips on job hunting).
Farming, Research and Other Ag Jobs
Let's start at heart of the sustainable food industry: farming. Cultivators of the land comprise the bedrock of sustainable food - and the world needs more farmers, especially as the current population ages. In the US, the age of the average farmer is 58.3 years, which is why groups like the National Young Farmers Coalition and The Greenhorns work to attract and assist new farmers in our modern food industry.
If you're considering a career in farming, you don't need an academic background in agriculture, although plenty of excellent farming programs do exist. Shannon Hyde of Olive Egg Farm, for example, held a full-time job in human services before she began raising hens in her urban backyard. Fast-forward to today: Shannon works part-time in social work and runs a poultry farm in rural New York. She did not start out in agriculture, and learned her craft by doing. On-farm educations are cheap and propel new farmers into the profession with hands-on experience.
Try to find internships at local farms and with programs seeking volunteers by checking out:
- Your local 4-H program if you are still in grade or high school.
- The National Young Farmers Coalition's list of regional organizations that connect new farmers with training opportunities.
- Farm Aid Resource Network's state directory of organizations helping new and experienced farmers.
- The World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) connecting volunteers with sustainable farms around the world.
If you are interested in farming research and technical jobs in agriculture, academic programs are useful for gaining an in-depth understanding of food and farming sciences. Graduates often seek jobs in farming-related fields, such as land management, consulting, animal welfare and agriculture or food research. Some academic programs offer scholarships and low-cost opportunities for sustainable farming degrees, such as the organic farming program offered through a partnership between Rodale Institute and Delaware Valley University in which veterans may have some or all of their tuition covered by the Yellow Ribbon Program, but we suggest getting experience on a farm before applying to an academic program.
Even if farming is not your ideal job, consider gaining some experience in the field. Look for opportunities to volunteer at farms or community gardens, start your own garden or get involved on your college campus.
Media and Communications
Media and strategic communications are both essential to strengthening a sustainable food system, and advocacy work in general. We are able to bridge gaps in opinions and build common ground through media and strategic campaigns. What's more, local farmers need to reach nearby consumers, businesses seek to attract new customers and food advocates strive to draw attention to their issues. Careers in web design, social media, journalism, videography, graphic design, marketing and more are available at non-profits, commercial offices and even in government. Organizations in need of in-house communications support hire people with a variety of skills and experiences, so don't be too intimidated to throw your hat in the ring!
From local, grassroots efforts to improve food access and quality within communities to national and international efforts to inspire institutional change, sustainable food advocacy works at all levels. Non-profits work to spread awareness through media, raise funds for new projects, offer tools and assistance to farmers and consumers supporting sustainable food, and provide research and analysis to foster open dialog on food issues.
You can get experience in advocacy by volunteering, interning and getting involved on campus at your school. You can also find resources online, like the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association's advocacy manual. Organizations like Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) exemplify varied advocacy work. While AWA works to raise awareness of food issues, they also provide a meat certification - theirs is largely recognized as the "gold standard" in this area - for farmers based on strict humane husbandry standards, giving consumers confidence in AWA labeled products. Other groups, like Food and Water Watch, lobby for better food-related policies and promote education and awareness.
Restaurants and Food Services
If you love working with food and are considering a career as a chef, restaurant owner, kitchen manager or distributor, the connection between food services and sustainability is straightforward: serve sustainable food! The Culinary Institute of America is making strides to "green" their curriculum, as are other culinary schools but learning to operate a sustainable food business can happen outside the classroom as well through hands-on experience. Once you become a professional in food services, bring sustainable practices into your kitchen by sourcing local, sustainable food, talking to your staff about sustainability and joining groups like Chefs Collaborative.
Law and Policy
If you are considering a career in politics or law, there are many ways to engage with food sustainability. Because law professionals are required to obtain a degree in law, you may want to attend an institute offering specializations in food issues, such as Vermont Law School's Center for Agriculture and Food Systems. Policymakers may enter their field through policy studies or an expertise in a technical field. As a policymaker or legal professional, you can help structure the legal environment that encourages a sustainable food market. The Environmental Law Institute, for instance, is a research and education group that works to strengthen environmental law by providing analysis for lawmakers, educational centers and business leaders.
All aspects of our health system are affected by the food system, which means that talking about the food we eat is a large component of a public health or healthcare career. There are public health master's programs that make this connection, such as at John Hopkins. The university's Center for a Livable Future also offers a certificate in the Food System, Environment and Public Health open to non-degree professionals as well as students in medicine, nursing and public health. Health professionals can work directly with patients, but many work to create strong health policies, programs and management through non-profit work and at health institutions and government agencies.
With all these great programs educating future professionals to engage with food sustainability, teaching is another crucial career path within sustainable food systems. From elementary to graduate school, teachers have huge impacts by instilling an understanding of the importance of sustainable agriculture in the next generation. Because there are more academic food advocacy programs popping up all the time, this field is expected to grow.
If you are interested in sparking the curiosity of young students (K-12), you don't necessarily need a degree in education, but you will need to pursue a certificate to teach in your state. States have varying levels of education requirements; in New York State, for example, teachers in public elementary schools are required to obtain Master's degrees. Check this guide to teaching to learn about programs and certificates near you. Get some experience teaching before you commit to a program. The FoodCorps program is a fantastic year-long opportunity to gain experience teaching kids about food sustainability, which will allow you to test the teaching waters to determine if it's a good fit for you.
For college or graduate-school level teaching, you will need a background in your subject or experience to lecture at an institution. You may be able to teach courses based on your field expertise in sustainable food, but many upper-level lecturers are professors or assistant professors with doctoral degrees in their chosen subject. Take a look at this rundown of what it takes to become a university professor. If you are interested in this career, consider studying sustainable agriculture or food systems as an undergraduate and/or graduate student and ask your professors about serving as a teaching assistant during the school year.
Technology and Entrepreneurship
Tech start-ups like crowd funding site Barnraiser are playing essential roles in boosting sustainable food. Groups like Food Tech Connect are working to promote similar innovations that combine food issues and tech resources. Echoing Green offers competitive fellowships and resources to people interested in working on all sorts of sustainable food issues and starting new food projects (some of their alums include Real Food Challenge co-founders).
Building a Network to Find a Job
Job-hunting is a skill itself. If you're still a student, don't wait around to think about what you might do professionally; explore! Your school's career services or alumni affairs offices may hold networking events regardless of where you live. LinkedIn can also be helpful, but make sure you're taking full advantage of the platform. Try not to be too intimidated to reach out professionals to pick their brain and learn from their experiences - you'll be surprised how eager someone within your network may be to help! (TheMuse.com has some great tips on these and other career resources.) Remember that regardless of your job hunt status, it's always helpful to meet new people and engage in a dialogue - you might learn of an opportunity or field subset that you didn't even know existed!
Food-specific job sites can help broaden your search by introducing opportunities in the field you may never have considered. Good Food Jobs, for example, provides ideas about what is available, profiles professionals paving new inroads to food and shells out useful advice on working in the food world. Finally, take a quick visit to Idealist.org - they remain a juggernaut for nonprofits in the market for new talent.
For more inspiration on career opportunities in food sustainability, dive into our Heroes series. Best of luck with your job search - we know you'll find the right job to help build a stronger food system.