Ecocentric is shining a light on food, agriculture and sustainability educators and researchers in higher education around the United States.
Jeneen Wiche is deeply committed to helping people understand what sustainable food is and how to make it part of their lives. Jeneen has juggled many roles in the food world: she's a food and Native American culture-focused professor of Anthropology at the University of Louisville, a savvy communicator and the owner/operator of Swallow Rail Farm in Kentucky with her husband, Andy Smart. Their farm is also certified to meet the high standards of Animal Welfare Approved. Along the way she's won numerous awards for her accomplishments in journalism, communications and teaching. Through these endeavors and more, Jeneen has shared her commitment with others by working towards a more sustainable and consumer-connected food system. We were able to get a hold of Jeneen between teaching, writing and running her farm to discover more about her work and what drives her forward.
What inspired you to enter a career in education?
As a graduate student in American Indian Studies at the University of Arizona I was asked to be a Graduate Teaching Assistant which put me on track to be an educator. This gave me the opportunity to experience a University classroom from the lectern and not just the audience. The moment that I realized I made a positive difference in the life of a student I knew teaching would be a meaningful career.
With such diversity of pursuits in the food space, from farmer to academic to practical teacher and communicator, is there a thread that ties all of your work together?
Our farm informs so much of what I do. It teaches me responsibility, accountability, success and failure (and all the little things that fall between). I respect the slowness of things, the instinct of animals and being happy to be right where I am. It also teaches me that things can be done differently than they have been done before...on the farm and in the classroom. I have a fantastic Anthropology Department at the University of Louisville. For nearly 20 years my colleagues have been supportive of our farming pursuits and provided opportunities for me to translate that academically.
From those fresh out of high school to those well into their career, what do you want your students to know about the food system?
How simple it can be but how complicated it is.
What can we learn about food from Native American traditions?
Two things stand out. First, gender relations were strengthened through food related chores that were complementary. Each gender had a specific job that complemented the other which reinforces accountability to the entire group. In other words, you kill the buffalo, someone else picks the berries and I make the pemmican. We all need each other to survive. The second thing is how important traditional foods are to cultural identity and how this can be harnessed today to solve some economic development challenges or improving health outcomes. Consider how sustainable wild rice harvesting, buffalo, salmon and other foods could improve health, provide jobs, generate tribal income and be culturally relevant.
With all the changes you've seen in agriculture, what's the one thing you would change about the food system?
Practically speaking I would like to see an emphasis on building smaller, localized infrastructures that support the production of food and getting it to local eaters. We need to emphasize fiscal reciprocity within our own communities over corporate profit from cheap food (which has a steep price in terms of environment, social justice, health and culture). When you know the person that grows what you eat, or you meet the person that slaughters your chicken or gleans acres of peppers, you will care about food, people and animals. This simple engagement could help change the dismissive attitudes many have about food and the implications of the industrial food system.
What's the one food you can't do without?
Only one? Come on Kai! It's actually a meal that includes roasted chicken, sweet potatoes and broccoli. This is my favorite meal and it's one I can grow myself. Change up your herbs and it's a meal for any season.