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UW Food Systems students tackle food security, food justice, and food sovereignty

University of Washington Food Systems, Nutrition, and Health majors once again collaborated with over a dozen regional partners in Seattle-King County during spring quarter 2021 to complete capstone projects that helped advance initiatives focused on increasing sustainability, resilience, and equity across the food system. 

This year’s projects, which centered on common themes of food security, food justice, and food sovereignty, gave students the opportunity to partner directly with food system leaders from organizations and local government to take action and affect real world problems. 

Understanding Food Systems Through an Equity Lens

Understanding the differences between food security, food justice, and food sovereignty is a key component of the UW Food Systems, Nutrition, and Health Major capstone.

“Both food justice and food sovereignty include the goal of food security, while offering strategies of how this can be achieved equitably and within a food systems framework,”  said Yona Sipos, an assistant teaching professor in the UW Nutritional Sciences Program and the Food Systems, Nutrition, and Health Capstone instructor.  

“Food justice and food sovereignty also consider people and the planet throughout the food supply chain and fundamentally refocus on the rights of communities to define their own food system in ways that are ecologically and socially sustainable,” adds Sipos.

“Food security is when all people, at all times, have physical, social, economic access to sufficient, safe, nutritious foods that meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life. “

These themes were already pressing before COVID-19, but when the pandemic stressed the food supply chains and workforce even more in 2020, inequities throughout the food system rose, and the issues became more illuminated through news coverage.

Students engaged with a modified 21 Day Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge using resources compiled by Food Solutions New England as a way to develop shared understanding and skills to center racial equity within their community-based food systems work.

“Our projects provide students an opportunity to collaborate and integrate what they’ve learned while in the Food Systems major such as applying systems thinking to complex problems, while learning from community leaders. We use a racial equity framework to study dynamic, real world food systems and consider this work critical community engaged scholarship,” said Sipos.

“This project is an opportunity to make a real difference in the community in a way that resonates with you as a person,” one student shared about their experience in the course. “Challenge yourself and you’ll be surprised at what you can do!”

Teaming Up, Taking Action

Community partners were matched with student teams, in some cases, more than one student team worked on the same project.

Each team defined their specific project goals with direction from their community partner and received feedback from a member of the teaching team, which was led by Sipos and included Alan Ismach, course coordinator; Rachel Ross and Chelsea Whealdon, teaching assistants and MPH/RDN students in the UW Nutritional Sciences Program; and Leah Wood, reader/grader who is an MPH/MPH student in the Department of Global Health and Evans School of Public Policy and Governance

A small number of students who have not been able to return to Seattle due to the COVID-19 pandemic travel restrictions focused their projects on topics relevant to their locations in China, Korea, and Vietnam.

Projects were presented to the community partners and other invited guests on June 2 via a Zoom session.

The Food Systems, Nutrition, and Health Capstone course acknowledges that these projects are happening on the traditional lands of all tribes and bands within the Suquamish, Tulalip, Muckleshoot nations and the Dkhw’Duw’Absh, the Duwamish Tribe. 

Partner Projects in Seattle-King County 

Black Farmers Collective and Yes Farm

The teams working with Black Farmers Collective and Yes Farm focused on strategies for advancing  racial equity in the Seattle area food system, particularly for Black, Indigenous, and communities of color (BIPOC). One team developed educational materials for teaching gardening to younger generations, and another team focused on analyzing existing resources through a geographical lens and developed a resource map. 

City of Seattle Farm to Table Initiative

These teams explored the adverse environmental impacts of industrial meat production in comparison to the benefits of small farms practicing regenerative animal agriculture by reviewing evidence-based publications and gathering opinions through interviews with farmers.  Resources created by both teams included colorful infographics and fact sheets that were educational for the consumer. Themes covered include costs, resilience, health, supporting local farmers, consumer trust, and adverse environmental effects.

“Congrats to your whole team!! You all did a great job presenting and we are excited to use your infographic in our education!! Best to you all finishing out the quarter and graduating!! Hope to see you out in the food systems world!!”

– Leika Suzumura, Seattle Farm to Table

“Thank you for sharing your final project materials and for all your hard work on our project! We really enjoyed working with you and were very impressed by your group’s organization, time management, and responsiveness to our input and feedback. We’re excited to put this material into use with our childcare partners and families! We hope this has been a rewarding experience for everyone, and huge congratulations on completing the quarter and graduation!! 

– Kelly Okumura, Seattle Farm to Table

City of Seattle Office of Sustainability & Environment

Teams working with the City of Seattle formed recommendations for improving the 2012 Seattle Food Action Plan.  Both teams selected a framework and models of how other cities have addressed similar plans, analyzing strengths and weaknesses to form their strategies.  Both teams compiled suggestions for how to handle stresses and shocks to the food system, and proposed changes to improve equity and food access.  

King County Local Food Initiative, FareStart, and Plant Based Food Share

Increasing better food access and awareness of BIPOC-owned farms in Seattle was the focus for the teams collaborating with FareStart, King County and the Plant Based Food Share.  One team created a pamphlet which included a regional map of BIPOC owned and operated farms within an approximate 100-mile radius of Seattle, designed to be family-oriented and used to find CSA programs, farm stands, and kid-friendly camps and to learn about childhood health in Seattle. The second team developed a website titled “Where’s Our Food,” which provided a similar regional map of BIPOC-owned farms, and educational components aimed at increasing equity-focused food systems knowledge and defining complex food systems concepts such as the important difference between food deserts and food apartheid. 

SnoValley Tilth

The team collaborating with SnoValley Tilth analyzed land tenure options that could help small farmers in King Country bypass barriers to obtaining farm land in the county. Examples of some challenges included small-term leases, lack of water or housing on site, and limited opportunities for long term investment. Through analysis of a few options, the team’s presentation recommended that allocating land through a Community Land Trust (CLT) would be the best option for King County. 

Solid Ground

Both teams working with Solid Ground researched food banks in other cities in the United States as case studies, which involved reviewing policies and programs these organizations have implemented that could be helpful recommendations for Seattle’s food banks. One team developed infographics as resources, and another team developed a food bank newsletter. Suggestions included increasing outreach through social media, increasing accessibility and social services, and expanding nutrition services for families.

University District Food Bank 

Identifying ways the U District Food Bank could better serve the Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) customers they serve with more culturally responsive and relevant food was the goal of both teams. One team conducted a literature review and interviews with other food banks in the Greater Seattle area to help identify recommendations. A second team designed an updated preference card, feedback form, and an informational flyer.

A third team working with the University District Food Bank investigated ways the organization could promote and educate the community about their High-solids Organic-waste Recycling System with Electrical Output (HORSE) system, an on-site anaerobic biodigester which generates energy from food waste and similar organic materials.  The system outputs rich liquid fertilizer called digestate and electricity. The team created an infographic and pamphlet, and identified potential community partners who might be able to utilize the digestate via a detailed map.

Viva Farms

The teams working with Viva Farms both focused on assessing and recommending ways the farm could improve accessibility for visitors with disabilities, and developed strategies and educational materials designed to reduce farm injuries and increase farm site safety. Materials produced included infographics and a farm map identifying key areas that are most critical to accommodate visitors such as bathrooms and paths. 

YouthCare’s Orion Center

Two teams worked with YouthCare, a Seattle organization dedicated to helping homeless youth, and both teams focused on ways to aid YouthCare’s staff to integrate food justice as a value within the organization.  One team developed educational materials targeted to a staff audience which defined and highlighted food justice themes. They created a poster and brochure, and gathered and developed resources to support the grant team which included a grant proposal outline. Another team researched educational materials used by similar organizations. They focused their work on creating a food budget, and advice on meal planning that was culturally relevant, using foods that were affordable but also fair trade and organic. 

International Projects

Food Delivery Industry in China

A team of three students analyzed the food delivery industry in China, conducting a survey to identify problems, and understand opinions and attitudes of customers.  Key areas the team looked at were replacing packing materials with recycled materials to reduce environmental burden, improving conditions for food delivery workers, and improving food quality by requiring restaurants to include more transparent information about hygiene of their establishment in the purchasing app. 

Supporting Local Farmers in China and Korea

Another team focused on finding solutions to address the decrease in arable lands in China and Korea. One suggestion included increasing awareness of an existing policy on giving subsidies to farmers who have experienced impacts from natural disasters. Additional ideas included leveraging e-commerce livestreaming to increase sales, encouraging young people to start family farms, and reviewing how food is grown more efficiently, such as vertical farming to increase crop yields and reduce negative impact on the environment. 

Organic Food Industry in China

Another team studied the history of the organic food industry in China from past to present and the challenges and barriers to resilience of this industry. The team examined issues such as confusing labeling, certification of organic products, price as a barrier to consumers, the use of chemical fertilizers, and limited consumer access due to current export practices.

2021 Capstone Projects and Partners in Seattle-King County

Project Title Organization 
Building Food Systems Towards Food Sovereignty Black Farmers Collective and Yes Farm
An Exploration of Local vs. Industrial Meat Production: Impacts on Farm/Food Workers, Animal Welfare, Environment, and Human Health City of Seattle Farm to Table Program 
Building a More Resilient & Equitable Food System in Seattle City of Seattle Office of Sustainability & Environment
Creative Land Tenure Options for Farmers in King County SnoValley Tilth
Policy, Systems & Environmental (PSE) Strategies at Food Banks: What’s been Successful? Solid Ground
Expanding Culturally Relevant Food Choice University District Food Bank
Building a Digestate Distribution Pathway in our Community University District Food Bank 
A Growing Need for Accessible Agriculture at Viva Farms Viva Farms
Incorporating Food Justice as a Value within Homeless Youth Shelters Youthcare’s Orion Project
Where’s Our Food? King County Local Food Initiative, Farestart, Plant Based Food Share

Support for Projects

The capstone is supported by the Food Systems, Nutrition & Health Major Fund, established by dedicated alumni and friends to ensure the Food Systems major thrives in its early years.

Alumnae June Bartell (’79) and Kathy Kingen (’79) were instrumental in bringing undergraduate nutrition courses back to the UW and their unwavering support made the new Food Systems, Nutrition and Health Major possible.

Learn More

What is food sovereignty and food justice, and how do they differ from food security?

Food sovereignty is the right of peoples to healthy and culturally-appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems. It puts the aspirations and needs of those who produce, distribute and consume food at the heart of food systems and policies rather than the demands of markets and corporations. 

Declaration of Nyéléni, the first global forum on food sovereignty, Mali, 2007

Food justice is the right of communities everywhere to produce, process, distribute, access, and eat good food regardless of race, class, gender, ethnicity, citizenship, ability, religion, or community. Food justice includes:

  • Freedom from exploitation
  • Ensures the rights of workers to fair labor practices
  • Values-based: respect, empathy, pluralism, valuing knowledge
  • Racial Justice: dismantling of racism and white privilege
  • Gender equity

Principles of food justice, Institute for Agriculture & Trade Policy, published 2013 

Food security is when all people, at all times, have physical, social, economic access to sufficient, safe, nutritious foods that meet their dietary needs & food preferences for an active & healthy life.  

An overview of hunger and food security, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

June 14, 2021