- Author: Ann Brody Guy
“Food commands attention and brings people together,” says L. Ann Thrupp, executive director of the Berkeley Food Institute, a new interdisciplinary research center comprising five different UC Berkeley schools. “It touches on every aspect of human society.”
It’s bringing academia together, too. Food research centers have been springing up at campuses across the United States as higher education takes on the complex topic from multiple perspectives.
“The academic community is recognizing that when it comes to food, it’s no longer possible to tease out agriculture from environmental, public policy, social justice and public health issues,” Thrupp says.
UC Berkeley’s new initiative is ambitious. In development for nearly two years before its launch this fall, the center has a mission to help achieve transformation in the food and agriculture systems, making them more diverse, healthy, resilient and just — at local, regional, national and international levels.
The Institute will pursue that transformation by supporting and galvanizing collaborative research efforts across its five partner units — Berkeley Law, the Goldman School of Public Policy, the Graduate School of Journalism, the School of Public Health, and the College of Natural Resources (CNR) — and with faculty affiliates throughout the University.
But, as befits Berkeley’s storied history of activism and leadership, the Institute’s vision is larger than publishing in academic journals. Its leaders plan to break down the traditional boundaries between academia and society and connect with boots-on-the-ground stakeholders who can help identify knowledge gaps and use research to bring about real changes in the food system.
“It is not enough to conduct research — the fruits of this research must be delivered broadly to civil society and to policy makers,” says Claire Kremen, a conservation biology professor and one of the Institute’s two faculty co-directors. “That’s why the schools of journalism and of public policy are key collaborators. They have the expertise to communicate our findings to key sectors and actors in society and government.”
Thrupp echoes the point. “Making an impact will require the engagement of multiple sectors, including scientists, farmers, food system workers and policymakers — at all levels,” she says. “The Berkeley Food Institute will help facilitate those crucial connections.”
This fall, two heavy-hitters from far-flung corners of the food world are helping the Institute start making those connections, as its first visiting scholars. Olivier de Schutter, the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, fights hunger worldwide and defends food as a “human right.” Saru Jayaraman, head of the UC Berkeley’s Food Labor Center, has fought to improve wages and working conditions for food workers, and to broadly communicate the issues they face.
The next panel, “The Right to Food: Reshaping Policies for Development and Public Health,” scheduled for Oct. 28, is moderated by J-School Dean Edward Wasserman and features De Schutter and public health and ag-econ faculty.
The fall programs culminate with “What’s Next for the Food Movement?” a conversation between author and journalism professor Michael Pollan and, fresh from the Obama administration, former Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan. It’s moderated by journalist Linda Schacht.
The dynamic public events series, what organizers are calling “The Food Exchange,” is just a taste of the conversations, investigations, and collaborations to come, both behind the scenes and in a public forum.
“It’s inspiring that so many researchers, students, stakeholders and community members are interested and involved in the Berkeley Food Institute and our mission,” Thrupp says.