Innovation. Privilege. Collaboration. Capitalism. Legacy. These are just a few of the 400 words that were submitted when attendees were asked what came to mind when they heard the term “food systems.” 

In a conversation about innovation and equity in food systems education, panelists from Hawaii, Vermont, and Montana brought their ideas to the event “Critical and Equity Oriented Pedagogical Innovations In Agroecology and Food Systems Education.”

The event discussed how different methods of teaching can benefit the study of agricultural systems and the production of food applied to ecology. Hosted by the UC Santa Cruz Center for Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems, six educators spoke about their experiences with education and activism within food systems. 

Food system and the study of it includes the discussion of the infrastructure and processing of food to feed an entire population. Changes in food systems are also often influenced by political, environmental, and social movements.

Pedagogy: the study of different methods of teaching and its effects on learning
Agroecology: The study of agriculture systems of production applied to ecological processes.

The panelists spoke about the importance of inclusivity in their educational programs and different ways educational institutions can implement innovative pedagogical techniques. Associate professor at Montana State University and ethnobotanist Selena Ahmed talked about the deconstruction of the current education plan and reconstruction of one inclusive to all populations. The panelists did this by addressing the diversity gaps within the curriculum and by introducing classes such as ethnobotany, the study of plants in a specific region and their ties to the local culture. 

Albie Miles, assistant professor of sustainable community and food systems at University of Hawai’i at West Oahu, echoed a similar sentiment when he spoke about the collaboration of the program and the Indigenous population of Hawai’i. 

“The program continues to work alongside the Native Hawaiian community and there are Native Hawaiian leaders who advise the content of the program and how it engages with that community,” Miles said. “There’s an ongoing collaborative effort relationship with them since the founding [of the program] all the way through to the present day.” 

Selena Ahmed: Associate professor at Montana State University
Nils McCune: Research Associate at in Agroecology and and Livelihoods Collaborative at the University of Vermont. Professor at the Latin American Institute of Agroecology Ixim Ulew in Nicaragua
David Meek: Assistant Professor in the Department of Global Studies at the University of Oregon.
Albie Mills: Assistant Professor in Sustainable Community Food Systems at the University of Hawai‘i–West O‘ahu.
Tanamá Varas: co-founder of Black Earth Farms and Agroecology Commons.
Will Valley: Associate Professor and academic director of the core curriculum in the faculty of Land, Food, and Community (LFC) at the University of British Columbia.
Kessa V. Johnson: Award-Winning designer studying equity and access to food systems.

The panelists took a break from speaking about their respective programs to answer questions from the audience. 

Nils McCune, research associate in agroecology and livelihoods collaborative at University of Vermont, shifted the conversation from educational programs to a holistic look at the role of establishments within food systems.  

“More broadly than the question, as an academic and a participant of spaces in collective learning is how can we fight the empire today,” McCune said. “As academics who are so locked into a system of institutionalised competition and stroking of ego, what is our role?” 

The conversation wrapped up with a final Q&A session, as the audience members asked questions about how to enter food systems work as activists and educators. 

Kessa V. Johnson, award-winning designer, spoke about the social aspects that drew her to the study of access to food systems within disadvantaged groups and her motivation to help farms find sustainable solutions to issues of agricultural production. 

“Agroecology to me is a people-centric system with sustainable agriculture,” Kessa V. Johnson said. “It’s about a social justice movement driven by farmers, and other food producers, to maintain power over their local food systems and protect the livelihoods in their communities and defend their rights as individuals to [have access to] nutritious and diverse foods that are healthy for them.”