Our Hero: Rose Hayden-Smith of the University of California

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Courtesy of Rose Hayden-Smith

Ecocentric is shining a light on food, agriculture and sustainability educators and researchers in higher education around the United States.

We can’t say enough about Rose Hayden-Smith. She’s amazing! On top of being a US historian who has written a fascinating book about the legacy of victory gardens, she’s an advocate for sustainable food systems and one heck of an educator, advisor and academic at the University of California. Not to mention she’s the voice behind the excellent, fast-growing UC Food Observer (UCFO) project, which we tune into regularly for her unique take on food news and issues. Rose was kind enough to provide such amazing answers to the below questions about her and her work. Talk about inspiring!

Find her on Twitter at @victorygrower  and @ucfoodobserver.

Could you please explain what the UC Food Observer is and how it ties into the UC Global Food Initiative? 

The UCFO is a unique communications and public service project under UC’s Global Food Initiative. It is a curated news/original content website and linked social platforms (such as Twitter and Facebook). UCFO highlights important news about the broad topic of food and agriculture. We hope to add value to the varied discussions occurring about how to sustainably and nutritiously feed the world.

The intention of the brand is not to serve as a channel for UC news, but rather to provide a platform that gathers and convenes conversations and to share the work of others. I love this aspect of it, because despite the challenges facing us, there is so much positive work happening. We strive to provide a balanced perspective on complex issues, to share information, connect people/organizations and again, provide a public service.

To date, more than 650 original content and curated blog posts have been published on the website. Curated content often appears in a blog post called a “Wrap,” which organizes and provides context for the day’s most important stories. Original content pieces include Q&As, which have presented a range of perspectives and celebrities, ranging from Michael Pollan, civil rights activist Shirley Sherrod and biotechnologist Pam Ronald, to local producers, such as Ventura County farmer Chris Sayer. Other blog posts have shared information about organizations, including those engaged in educating beginning farmers, gleaning and more. UCFO original content has also tackled important thematic issues such as food waste. Because I’m an historian, there’s often some historical context provided, which is a unique twist.

It’s been a busy first year, we’re growing quickly and I’m really excited that we’ll be bringing on a full-time assistant editor in the next few weeks. There’s so much to do!

About the Global Food Initiative (GFI)…incredible, ambitious and already having impacts. I’m inspired by this work, which is institution wide. Here’s what UC President Janet Napolitano said about it: “It is our intent to do everything in our power to put the world on a pathway to feed itself in ways that are nutritious and sustainable.”

When you change institutions, you change society. 

UC is a huge and incredibly prestigious institution – there are ten campuses, the Ag and Natural Resources division, the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab and UC’s Office of the President involved. So the reach of this initiative is enormous. And the call to us is to not only look deeply at our own practices around food and sustainability, but to extend our work whenever possible to the state, the nation and the world.

UC has been engaged in a lot of this work already, but the GFI has helped us organize it more effectively and really get faculty, students and staff from the far-flung parts of UC to work together in new and creative ways. It’s been authentic and catalyzing work, with lots of room for self-reflection. I think it’s courageous for institutions to attempt big things like this, because everything new and creative also has the potential to be disruptive to established thinking and processes. But that’s what educational and research institutions should be about.

If you’re reading this and are not familiar with it, I hope that you’ll visit the website.

A final word on the GFI: food is fundamental and essential to all of us. To have a world class institution like UC really put the absolutely vital and myriad issues surrounding food – in the broadest sense – front and center should serve as a model for other institutions.

When you change institutions, you change society. 

What inspired you to enter a career in food sustainability education?

Like many things in life, this was unplanned. It was serendipitous. I actually majored in English at UCSB and then worked in high tech in the Silicon Valley. After several years, I was ready for a reset and made a move to Southern California. I was hired by UCSB to work as a student affairs officer and director of its off campus center in Ventura. I was working mostly with non-traditional and re-entry students. Great work. I went back to school and got a Masters in Education.

So I’m in this UCSB satellite center in Ventura County, which is prime agricultural land. And I keep getting these phone calls asking for the University of California Ag Extension office, aka the “Farm Advisor.” I wanted to meet these folks that everyone seemed to be calling for advice, so I called Larry Yee, the director, and we met. I was incredibly intrigued with the work of his team: supporting farmers, families and the community with information and programs in agriculture, nutrition, natural resources and family, youth and community development.

I’m reminded of something Henry Agard Wallace (FDR’s Vice President and the former ag secretary) said at the outset of World War II: “On a foundation of good food we can build anything. Without it we can build nothing.”

Early in 1992, Larry asked me to join his team and head up the 4-H program. I was working with youth K-12 and adult volunteers, as well as community-based organizations like Boys and Girls Clubs, Scouts, YMCA and public schools.

An advisor named Dan Desmond – who was based in Northern California – agreed to serve as my mentor. Dan was/is an exceptional educator (and he’s also an amazing farmer). He suggested that an incredibly effective way to accomplish a wide range of youth development goals was through garden-based education. That was the beginning of what has been an ever-deepening relationship with food systems and sustainability education. 

I often tell people that for me, gardening was the gateway drug into the food system. It kept broadening my thinking, my daily work and my research program. It led to work on farm-to-school, local food projects, community garden work, nutrition programming, youth and family programs with underserved communities, programs at the UC farm in Santa Paula (Hansen Agricultural Research and Extension Center)…and more. I learned so much about how the food system was interconnected and my work kept expanding into a larger systems orientation. And a couple of decades later I find that is still the case. The food system is fundamental and it’s connected to everything. Everything I do leads me back to food.

Dan’s mentorship also led me to pursue another great passion: looking to the past for inspiration about models that might inform current policy and practice. And that’s how I began a dual practice – as a hands-on educator/researcher and a US historian looking at the food system. And for me, the work is a calling.

Sustainability is such a big concept. What does it mean to you and your work?

My view of sustainability is always evolving. “Sustainability” is a difficult term, because it is value-laden and thus holds different meaning for each of us. I am certainly influenced by what I have learned through working with UC’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. But for me, a sustainable food system is: 

  • Healthy, because food is fresh, nutritious and minimally processed;
  • Green, because food is produced and distributed in a way that supports a healthy environment, now and into the future;
  • Fair, because it generates an equitable wage for all those involved in producing, processing, distributing and selling it;
  • Affordable and accessible to everyone. Access to good food should be a right, not a privilege.
  • A system that invites participation, collaboration and shared decision-making; and
  • Reflective of community and cultural need, norms, practices and traditions.

From those fresh out of high school to those well into their career, what do you want your audience to know about the food system?

Everyone eats: everyone is a stakeholder. I would like people to be engaged with the food system/systems, to ask lots and lots questions and to advocate for positive change. Know as much as you can about what you eat. Think about where your food comes from and ask critical questions about the supply chain. Be intentional in food choices. Meet people who are involved in producing, processing, distributing, preparing the food you eat…honor them with questions about and interest in their work. I love to hear people’s stories and it’s how I learn.

I also want people to be urgent about issues around food and the food system. Food is vital to national security. I’m reminded of something Henry Agard Wallace (FDR’s Vice President and the former ag secretary) said at the outset of World War II: “On a foundation of good food we can build anything. Without it we can build nothing.”

What have UC students and faculty taught you about making positive changes to the food system?

I am inspired by the work of my colleagues and the students we are all privileged to work with. The research being conducted at UC is cutting edge, but there is also a real and very connected human aspect to the work. Some of the best days I have had are those I’ve spent with UC colleagues at the field sites where they are conducting their research, whether that’s with a farmer in an actual field, or at a community center or school cafeteria where nutrition is the focus. I’ve been inspired by the UC researchers who hop on planes and travel across the world to work with farmers and other researchers to tackle issues that challenge us all, wherever we live and call home. Working at UC means being embedded in a learning environment. I’m a curious person and this is a rich environment to work in.

A nation that does not address hunger and does not place an emphasis on childhood nutrition risks its national security and economic future.

The students are amazing, energetic and innovative. Their work is intellectually robust and integrated across a number of disciplines…it’s holistic. Their leadership and engagement is what we need to make changes and to move forward into new kinds of work. I attended a student-organized conference at UC earlier this year that addressed a variety of issues. One topic the group tackled was hunger among students. I attended several student-led workshops and it was an eye-opening experience. And I’ve been sharing that work with others around the country because it’s really sparked an awareness and concern in me.

I love this young generation of leaders and I learn so much from them. I am ready to follow them.

If you had a magic wand, what’s the one thing you would change about the food system?

In my book – Sowing the Seeds of Victory – I outline a number of policy recommendations that I think would effect positive change in the food system. Like many others, I’m incredibly disturbed by the disparities I see in the food system and how these play out in terms of health, education and economics.

I think one way to effect big change is through education. We need to start early. I’d like to see a national curriculum that educates youth about food systems, environment, healthy lifestyle and nutrition. At all grade levels. Every day. I’d make nutrition and food security a national priority. A nation that does not address hunger and does not place an emphasis on childhood nutrition risks its national security and economic future. It’s essential to bring better food to our tables, to invest more in agricultural research, food system infrastructure and new food system models, models that will more adequately support the health and well being of children, families and communities. 

Childhood nutrition is a moral issue, a social issue, an economic issue and an issue of national security. We must treat it as a national priority. Real national security comes from investing in the health of children, families and communities and by investing in the production of healthy food.

What’s the one food you can’t do without?

There are actually three: blueberries, chocolate and coffee. Cheese would be the fourth.