UC Food Observer is your daily selection of must-read news on food policy, nutrition, agriculture and more, developed by the University of California as part of its UC Global Food Initiative. The UC Food Observer blog and related social media channels highlight important news and further discussions about how to sustainably and nutritiously feed the world. Find out more in this Q&A with UC Food Observer curator Rose Hayden-Smith, a UC academic, author and historian.
What can readers expect from UC Food Observer?
UC Food Observer offers a daily roundup of interesting news, reports and thought pieces from a broad range of sources that represent diverse perspectives. The intent is not to focus on UC, but instead allow UC to reflect and perhaps add to the very important discussions that are occurring. Pieces will be posted throughout the day on the UC Food Observer website and social media. The goal is to achieve a balance of perspectives and topics in the lineup. If it might help the reader, larger context may be provided, through background information or additional links in a posting. There also will be an original long-form piece a couple of times each month by me and guest commentators. And UC Food Observer will be engaging actively with people across social media. The hope is to add value to the conversation and to provide a service.
What’s the inspiration for the blog?
The idea originated with our colleague, Pete King. With interest in food and agriculture at an all-time high, it seemed like there might be space for something like this: a knowledgeable, curated selection of what’s important and interesting in the dialogue around food. There’s an incredible amount of good information on any number of topics relating to food and agriculture. There are big ideas out there, and great conversations occurring. If UC Food Observer can help share some of that information, highlight key themes and connect people, it will be a good thing. The more we all know, the better.
Why is the blog needed?
To have a neutral voice pulling together the most important and interesting parts of the conversation around food gives both food insiders and the general public another source of information that hopefully will reflect the constantly evolving food landscape. We hope that the blog will add value to the myriad conversations occurring; not only by including and sharing the terrific work that’s being produced by others, but also by providing some unique, original content. We also hope that the blog may engage audiences who have not previously been as engaged in food systems work. Everyone eats. Everyone is a stakeholder in the food system.
How do you decide what to include in the blog?
It’s a process of continually scanning the environment, talking to people and organizing a well-balanced “menu” of content each day. The team has a calendar of key gatherings that one of us either attends or “watches” via social media. The content will reflect diverse interests and follow many threads of discussion. A part of the decision-making lies in thinking about what might inform and inspire others.
Included is breaking news and information that’s less time-sensitive — for example, perhaps the release of a significant report. A daily lineup generally will include news, information about events and some lighter pieces such as book reviews. We’ll share different things on each platform, so the articles shared on Facebook may differ from the articles included in the blog. Content is organized around a couple of dozen categories ranging from local events to issues of global importance. Featuring UC news is not a primary goal; institutional news finds its way into the lineup on its own merit.
The original pieces will vary, but readers can certainly expect some to include a historical perspective and how the lessons of the past might apply to contemporary issues.
You’re an author, historian and garden educator. How will that inform your curation for UC Food Observer?
I have an unusual professional background. I consider myself a “consilient” thinker (i.e., literally the “jumping together of knowledge” from various disciplines, as explained by British polymath William Whewell). I’ve worked as both a technical and more creative writer. I’ve worked in the technology industry, been an educator, a youth development professional in 4-H, a Master Gardener advisor, done some advocacy work as a W.K. Kellogg Foundation Fellow and served as leader for UC Agriculture and Natural Resources’ strategic initiative in sustainable food systems.
My training as a U.S. historian always gives me pause to consider context and to examine how current practices might be influenced by the past. I’ve curated exhibits and online content as a historian. You make decisions about content, and hopefully they are inclusive, representative and honor various perspectives. I am always eager to understand how we got here. I consider my work as a historian a scientific enterprise: I study the rate, nature and character of change over time.
My personal experience as a school and community garden educator has shaped my thinking in profound ways. I think I bridge social and cultural understandings of food systems with more technical aspects and systems thinking. Things are inextricably linked in a food system — it truly is a web — and I like to think about issues from the hands-on, local level to the broadest implications of that work (often global).
As a UC academic and alum, what led to your interest in this position?
This position combines all the things that I am most passionate about in a single enterprise. I love the opportunity to learn about new things in the food system every day, and being able to cover a broad intellectual and cultural landscape is appealing. I’m a communicator by nature: writing, interacting and connecting with others are all fundamental aspects of who I am. I think the topic of food is incredibly interesting, nuanced, varied and rich … and I think understanding food systems is vital to nearly every challenge we face in the world.
I’m thrilled that UC is engaging in this work. UC has influenced my life in amazing ways … and that experience of influence and learning is still unfolding. I participated in the 4-H program as a youth, was in-residence at UC for summer programs during high school, and attended UC as an undergraduate and graduate student (the last one: three times). Over the course of my career, I have worked in campus-based academic departments, campus extension, the Cooperative Extension service and in student affairs. I am amazed each day — anew — by how the UC system influences our day-to-day lives in the most positive of ways locally and in a more global sense. I reflected a little about all of this in a California Agriculture article I wrote on the 150th anniversary of the Morrill Land Grant Act. It’s a wonderful opportunity — and a privilege — to be part of UC’s work in this critical area.
If you could change one thing in the food system, what would it be?
That’s a difficult question. So many changes are needed. In my book, which was published last year, I identify 10 steps that I think people could take to effect change; many relate to gardening, which is a passion of mine. There’s been a great deal of discussion recently about an op-ed written by Mark Bittman, Michael Pollan, Ricardo Salvador and Olivier De Schutter. It appeared in the Washington Post and called for a national food policy. It’s a bold idea … and a necessary one.
I encourage what I term a “fundamental restructuring of agricultural and food policies.” What we have currently is a hodge-podge of regulations and policies that are often in contradiction with one another and that don’t always serve us (people and the environment) well. We need a more coherent national policy that considers all aspects of the food system. Our national policy impacts the global food system.
I remain extremely concerned about childhood nutrition and food access. As a nation, we’ve struggled with this for decades. Childhood nutrition and food access are among the great moral issues of our time – they need to be addressed and resolved.
At the outset of WWII, Vice President Henry Wallace told the nation, “On a foundation of good food we can build anything. Without it we can build nothing.”
I know Wallace has a mixed legacy, but this statement strikes me as both a profound truth and a goal we ought to aspire to.