#IntheKNOW Live Chat: Dr. Karen Spiller

At a Crossroads: Standing at the Intersection of Food Systems and Racial Justice in Pandemic Times

 

On July 17, 2020, Dr. Karen Spiller, the Thomas W. Haas Professor in Sustainable Food Systems at University of New Hampshire’s (UNH) Sustainability Institute in Durham, NH, joined the National Council for Science and the Environment Knowledge Network for One World (KNOW) community for a live discussion in NCSE’s Slack workspace on the intersections of food justice and racial justice in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Karen Spiller

 

Dr. Karen Spiller is a native of Detroit, Michigan, living in New England, who works collaboratively with stakeholders and organizations (locally, regionally, and nationally) on the integration of racial equity, food systems, and sustainability into learning activities. She co-developed and co-leads the Food Solutions New England's 21-Day Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge, which focuses on taking collaborative action towards a more just and equitable food system.

Karen’s recent interview with NCSE Science Engagement Intern, Jack Carew, opens an important window for the NCSE community on highly interdependent issues of food justice and racial justice. She shared an engaging personal perspective on how her work and the work of her students has been shaped by and is adapting to meet the current moment. Below is the edited transcript of the interview:

 

 

Jack Carew, NCSE Science Engagement Intern

Karen, we are so grateful you could join us today. Can you give us an idea of your day-to-day responsibilities? What types of projects, programs, or courses do you work with?

 

Karen Spiller, Thomas W. Haas Professor in Sustainable Food Systems at the University of New Hampshire

I approach my work, whether focused on academia, health, education, community or food systems, seeking and bringing racial equity to its core.  My work includes curriculum development; coaching and mentoring; board and network development.  I work collaboratively with stakeholders and organizations (locally, regional and nationally) to make linkages and extend resources based upon shared values of equity, trust, belonging and self-determination. I work with faculty, staff and students in a variety of ways, be it course design, the integration of racial equity, food system and sustainability into learning activities or participating/presenting in classroom or remote zoom room discussions. Among the movement building initiatives in which I am involved, the Food Solutions New England's 21-Day Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge focused on the food systems that I co-developed and co-lead with my dear friend and colleague, Curtis Ogden (IISC). The Challenge is one that has humbly contributed to the ways in which individuals, organizations and networks are reflecting on and taking collaborative action towards a more just and equitable food system.

 

Jack Carew, NCSE Science Engagement Intern

What benefits do you envision arising from the connections you draw between your community-engaged work with Food Solutions New England and with students at the University of New Hampshire?

 

Karen Spiller, Thomas W. Haas Professor in Sustainable Food Systems at the University of New Hampshire

Our students come to the University of New Hampshire to learn about a particular discipline, yet the campus provides a place for being “in community” with diverse learners with a wide range of identities of culture, gender, geography and lived experience.

Our campuses are both the “practice ground” for learning a new subject matter for career development, and a place for shaping new ways of being and serving as a contributing “citizen” in any community they choose to call home. Through my work at UNH, students have the opportunity to engage with Food Solutions New England (FSNE), a six state regional food system network that is intersectional in its structure, allowing a rich platform for diversity of expertise and knowledge. FSNE’s values of trust; sustainability; democratic empowerment; and racial equity and dignity for all continue to be linked to a foundation of humanity and belonging that when embraced have much added benefit to our students’ academic and life courses of development.

This year UNH faculty, staff and students were engaged in the planning of the launch and on campus participation in the UNH 21-Day Challenge. Faculty brought the Challenge into their syllabi. In preparation for the March 30 launch of the Challenge, UNH Dining and Hospitality Services worked with vendors to locally and equitably source ingredients to create recipes for the 21-days of menu items; dietetic graduate student interns created factoids for posting around campus and civil discourse lab interns planned agendas for student-led and hosted reflective conversations to be held each week during the Challenge. The on-campus engagement was interrupted by COVID-19, yet the commitment to learning more and strengthening our will and skill is embraced by our UNH community.

 

Jack Carew, NCSE Science Engagement Intern

I’m curious about the different ways that people in different geographical regions have mobilized in the face of new challenges presented by COVID-19. What innovations or successes have you experienced while dealing with challenges presented by COVID-19?

 

Karen Spiller, Thomas W. Haas Professor in Sustainable Food Systems at the University of New Hampshire

COVID-19 presented itself as pandemics historically do. They reveal the brokenness in systems and those who have been invisible are now our seen next-door neighbors. Yet in the midst of this turbulent assault on human dignity and human lives, new relationships have been forming; new alliances are emerging; and resources are being shared.

In New England, Migrant Justice and the Vermont Northeast Organic Farming Association are teaming up to circulate this sign-on letter to supermarket chain Hannaford urging the company to protect farmworker rights by joining the Milk with Dignity Program. Milk with Dignity is a supply chain program created by Vermont-based farmworker organization Migrant Justice, which brings together farmworkers, farmers, buyers and consumers to secure dignified working conditions in dairy supply chains.

Restaurants, while closed, chose to expand their "take out" experience to prepare and deliver meals through food pantries and other food distribution and recovery networks. Because the scheduled sale and distribution of Maine Fedco's fruit trees was interrupted, black and brown urban farmers in Boston were among the beneficiaries receiving over 300 “free”  fruit trees. We just had to arrange the pick up and delivery. In less than 24-hours, a plan for transport from Maine to Massachusetts was created for reserving trees and scheduling Boston pick-ups.

I am seeing humanity and collaboration in action. These acts are a few snapshots of mutual aid replicated across communities, across the country, during these times. We are resilient people.

 

Jack Carew, NCSE Science Engagement Intern

A significant component of your work is specifically equity-focused. What inequity have you seen exacerbated by the pandemic?

 

Karen Spiller, Thomas W. Haas Professor in Sustainable Food Systems at the University of New Hampshire

We have read and may painfully know from our own experiences, that those most vulnerable are most impacted by any pandemic or disruption to the “norms” to which we are accustomed.

Inequities were experienced with COVID-related stimulus packages like Paycheck Protection Program (PPP); access to COVID-19 testing; access to healthcare; access to employment as examples. Tele-health as a solution for healthcare, only works for those with an internet service, a computer and skills needed to navigate the use of that platform. The advances of "technology" are lost on the lack of reliable and consistent internet services, strength of broadband in one’s area along with the resources to purchase and maintain. In the food production arena, many of the farm workers, the meat packing workers, and kitchen staff are people of color who often are not provided the Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) or the space needed to maintain the suggested public health distance.

 

Jack Carew, NCSE Science Engagement Intern

How has your own professional work needed to adapt in the context of the current pandemic?

 

Professor Karen Spiller, Thomas W. Haas Professor in Sustainable Food Systems at the University of New Hampshire

In partnership with others who share my values, we remain steadfast in our non-negotiable commitment to racial equity, addressing whatever stands in its way, As with any work, we all have been called upon to be more creative in the way we gather and convene; the way we communicate; and the way we make meaning. 

Online platforms have seen our increased use.  Over the past few months I have learned how to use new platforms like Hopin for “conference -type” gatherings and tools like Jamboard for an interactive brainstorm. During online sessions, we have included more space for personal check-ins; meditative exercises; mini stretches and yoga moves; and reflective readings and music. And, for those of us who love being closer than arm's length; able to hug; and reach across the table and touch a hand, this has been emotionally challenging as we are gingerly adjusting to this new COVID-19 way of engaging.

 

Jack Carew, NCSE Science Engagement Intern

How have the skills you endeavor to engender in your students changed, or been reinforced, with the COVID-19 pandemic?

 

Karen Spiller, Thomas W. Haas Professor in Sustainable Food Systems at the University of New Hampshire

The skills and beliefs that I share with my students have not changed. The pandemic made the need for them more real, for some. This is not a body of research or something that took place long, long ago. The pandemic has been something that has touched everyone, each in unique ways, while more devastating for many.

The skills of humility, grace and humanity...what does this look and feel like in action, have been brought into my conversations and as part of community agreements. Learning and knowing the history of systemic racism in our country and how it prevails in our systems sets a foundation for action and sheds a blinding light on our responses to COVID-10 as well.

My students responded with a range of emotions, those of sadness and disappointment of no traditional graduation ceremony; fear and anger of the new health challenges and restrictions experienced by family, by friends and by themselves; and waves of helplessness and hopelessness of the uncertainty surrounding them. They worried given the economic implications for their own summer employment and the financial impact of the pandemic on their families. Skills of resilience and self-determination continue to push and hold them through the days, weeks and months to come.

 

Jack Carew, NCSE Science Engagement Intern

What job skills, and skills specific to public health and sustainable food systems, are even more important now in a post-COVID-19 world?

 

Karen Spiller, Thomas W. Haas Professor in Sustainable Food Systems at the University of New Hampshire

Being solutionary...understanding the intersectionality of our systems - public health, education, economy, food - and interacting across and within them with a consistent value -based posture. By definition that means “being motivated by compassion and justice and driven to cultivate creative, critical, strategic and systems thinking skills in order to address the underlying causes of deeply rooted and interconnected inequalities, especially racial inequities.”

 

Jack Carew, NCSE Science Engagement Intern

How have sustainability initiatives you organize at UNH and your other positions changed during the pandemic?

 

Karen Spiller, Thomas W. Haas Professor in Sustainable Food Systems at the University of New Hampshire

The commitment to racial equity remains a constant thread and core. The Pandemic has paved the way for the work that has been underway to blossom and for more allyship and accomplices to join to amplify the efforts to create a culture of belonging. The effort to lean into understanding and create new patterns of behavior and new practices and policies is ongoing. The power lies within all of us and those with more access, power, position and privilege are lending and using that privilege to make deeper connections and create new patterns. And, leadership continues to extend mutually and be shared from the lived -experiences of those impacted among us to those who have chosen to be on this journey toward equity. This work is not easy...requires a spirit of abundance and a knowing that my liberation is tied to yours; yours to mine!

 

Jack Carew, NCSE Science Engagement Intern

Now, I’d like to focus a little more on the equity components of your work. Recent weeks and months have seen an unveiling of racism in the United States. The killings of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd, and many others, and the consequent advocacy work by families, communities, and organizers have led to the most significant spotlight on racial justice since the Civil Rights Movement.

How is food justice related to racial justice?

 

Karen Spiller, Thomas W. Haas Professor in Sustainable Food Systems at the University of New Hampshire

How do we define food justice? One definition that I like is this one that NYC-based organization Just Food shares, “Food Justice is communities exercising their right to grow, sell, and eat healthy food.” In this definition, you can feel it, see it, even taste it. It becomes a livable attainable pathway that has vision and action. A just food system is one that serves and feeds us all.

Racial justice speaks directly to the creation and reinforcement of policies, practices, attitudes, beliefs and actions that produce equitable power, access, opportunities, treatment, impacts and outcomes for all, especially people of color. Together, food justice and racial justice allow for increased capital - human, intellectual, social, economic/financial. Everyone benefits from more just(ice), equitable systems.

 

Jack Carew, NCSE Science Engagement Intern 

Have you seen principles that you employ in your transdisciplinary racial equity work with Food Systems New England be embraced, or enter a national dialogue, as conversations surrounding racial justice become more numerous than they have in recent years? If so, how?

 

Karen Spiller, Thomas W. Haas Professor in Sustainable Food Systems at the University of New Hampshire

Let me now say a bit more about Food Solutions New England (FSNE). With the University of New Hampshire, Durham's Sustainability Institute as its backbone organization, this six-state network of food system thought and action leaders of both profession and lived-experience from Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont made a commitment to racial equity as a core value and began the ongoing work of building a culture of equity in 2013.

Equity as a Common Cause describes FSNE’s journey in ways that may be similar for other networks across the country. While on our ongoing journey towards equity, FSNE members, leading and connected to other organizations and networks, began to dig deep into what it meant to be “in community” with others to address racism in our food systems. Most had equity and fairness as intentions in their work, yet would acknowledge that they had not been as explicit in their actions. In the context of the 6th annual 21-day Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge, we were joined on this journey with more than 700 organizations and nearly 7,000 individuals. It is humbling to know that our collaborative effort and working towards racial equity is shared and that we together are learning from and building a stronger network to hold us close.

 

Jack Carew, NCSE Science Engagement Intern

 On environmental justice: one striking statistic I’ve heard mentioned more and more in conversations is that someone’s zip code is the strongest predictor of one’s health outcomes. Do you see your food systems work fitting into an environmental justice framework? If so, how?

 

Karen Spiller, Thomas W. Haas Professor in Sustainable Food Systems at the University of New Hampshire

Health outcomes are influenced by the many factors that influence well-being, from the quality of medical care received to the availability of viable employment with fair and equitable culture, clean water, healthy food, safe and affordable housing. In zip codes, where people of color live, many of these factors are absent leaving residents vulnerable to a cascade of disparities. To address the increased unveiling and rising of health disparities in public health, a growing number of counties have passed resolutions declaring racism a public health crisisFood justice, environmental justice, education justice, economic justice; all justice is intersectional and when we speak of one, work on changing one, we should recognize, explore and create positive change and impacts on the others. This is my call for an "interdisciplinary" intersectional approach to creating more equitable livable communities.

 

Jack Carew, NCSE Science Engagement Intern

Taking all of this into consideration, what advice do you have for students interested in pursuing careers in public health?

 

Karen Spiller, Thomas W. Haas Professor in Sustainable Food Systems at the University of New Hampshire

I would encourage “students” of all ages and disciplines, in the classrooms of structured education and of lived-experience to always be curious; to ask questions: to seek better understanding; and listen deeply. On our learning journey, I invite them to join me in being willing to be uncomfortable in what is not yet known - the uncertainty of it and hopeful for what the evolving growth, every single day of becoming "something different" can take us. Be open to a mind-set and heart-set of being "in community", building a community that embraces and celebrates the richness of what equity, racial equity means for our humanity and for our shared prosperity.

 

"If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will."  --Frederick Douglass, 1857

 

Additional Resources to Explore the Intersection of Food Justice and Racial Justice