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Q&A: Berkeley Food Institute at Ten

Since 2013, the Berkeley Food Institute (BFI) has cultivated a campus community dedicated to bringing together UC Berkeley academic resources in partnerships with communities to shape a just, equitable, and sustainable food system. The Institute represents more than 155 affiliated campus faculty and staff, and it has organized 130 events, awarded almost $600,000 in grant funds, and published dozens of research reports and policy briefs. BFI’s research, policy, education, and community engagement programs are organized into four focus areas that represent a collective vision for a just farm and food system: urban and rural agroecology, fair and healthy jobs, good food access, and racial equity.

We spoke with the Institute’s leadership—including its new Executive Director Jeanne Merrill—to hear their reflections on BFI’s impact and visions for the future.

These conversations have been edited for length and clarity.

Susana Matias  BFI Co-Associate Faculty Director, Assistant Professor of Cooperative Extension, Department of Nutritional Sciences and Toxicology

Susana Matias.

Photo by Mathew Burciaga.

Susana Matias

BFI Co-Associate Faculty Director
Assistant Professor of Cooperative Extension, Department of Nutritional Sciences and Toxicology

What inspired you to get involved in BFI?

My training is in epidemiology and public health nutrition, and I examine issues related to nutrition and food access in a way that’s heavily informed by the framework of social determinants of health. My work examines the social structures that determine our diet and our overall health.

I connected with BFI staff soon after arriving on campus in 2019. While the Institute’s good food access focus resonated with me specifically, I also saw that BFI’s work in the other focus areas showed a commitment to looking at the bigger picture to address issues in food systems.

What BFI accomplishments stand out for you?

BFI has become a campus hub allowing faculty and students with a shared focus on food systems to connect. Our network of affiliated faculty and staff provides an opportunity for meaningful collaboration.

When I first became an Institute affiliate, I wasn’t sure how to collaborate with researchers from disciplines so different from my own. Now, thanks to BFI, I’m working with Professor of City and Regional Planning Charisma Acey to evaluate how environmental justice in city planning can impact community food access. That work revolves around Senate Bill 1000, a California law that requires certain cities and counties with disadvantaged communities to write an environmental justice element into their General Plans to try to undo some of the damage done by discriminatory land use planning, like redlining. We hired Katie Fallon, a graduate student in the College of Environmental Design, to help us devise specific indicators to evaluate how well these updated General Plans address food access and equity. The next phase of this project is to see how the law moves the needle on health outcomes.

I’m also proud of BFI’s strength working with communities. As part of this SB 1000 project, we recently met with community members in Richmond and Gilroy as case studies for the initial research. That’s one area I am excited to expand in BFI’s programs: we have built a strong community of researchers on campus. Now, we’re taking Berkeley to the community.

What do you hope to focus on in BFI’s second decade?

As we focus on community partnerships, we also want to keep growing our in-house and affiliated research programs. We recently hired BFI’s first project scientist, Francisco Benítez, on a dual appointment with UC Agriculture and Natural Resources. He’s working with farmers around Parlier to understand the transition to sustainable agriculture. Longtime Rausser College of Natural Resources researcher Federico Castillo officially joined BFI and is leading the UC-Mexico Farm Labor Research Cluster, an interdisciplinary group of scientists in California and Mexico studying issues that affect the workforce on both sides of the border. Advancing our research supports BFI’s goal to inform and influence policy

Image of Timothy Bowles in the Oxford Tract

Timothy Bowles.

Photo by Mathew Burciaga

Timothy Bowles

BFI Co-Associate Faculty Director
Associate Professor of Agroecology and Sustainable Agricultural Systems, Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management

How does your research intersect with BFI?

As an agroecologist, I research how to use ecological principles to design healthy agricultural systems that benefit the people who work in them, the people who eat food produced by them, and biodiversity as well. Within that, much of my work focuses on understanding soil’s role in agricultural systems and how we can manage it to better sequester carbon and improve water quality while allowing farmers to meet production goals. This research is closest to BFI’s urban and rural agroecology focus but also touches on the other three focus areas, since we are looking at an integrated food system.

Another component of agroecology is rethinking who the experts are by valuing experiential and traditional knowledge alongside scientific knowledge, weaving together an approach to agriculture that’s different from the dominant industrial system. That doesn’t mean that the science is not rigorous. It just means that we’re transparent about our aims. We recognize a critical need for change in the food system. We can think of agroecology as a framework for transforming agricultural systems beyond just food production.

How does BFI fit into that agroecology framework?

Agroecology is often conceptualized into three dimensions: science, movements, and practice. BFI plays an important role at the interface between the science and movement of agroecology. In California, many community-based, grassroots organizations advocate for food justice, food sovereignty, farmworker justice, and sustainable agriculture. Nathalie Muñoz, BFI’s community engagement program manager, fosters relationships with those groups so that BFI can connect them with the research and information needed to support their movements. While our sister campuses have organizations that focus on connecting the science and practice of agroecology, like UC Santa Cruz’s Center for Agroecology, BFI fills this niche between science and community, with a goal of informing policy.

What has BFI accomplished, and where should it go from here?

In its first decade, BFI has made an invaluable impact by creating a community for researchers, staff, and students working on food systems. This community did not exist on campus before, and students have played a significant role in its expansion. The Food Institute Graduate Council, comprised of graduate students from various fields, organized the fourth annual Food Systems Conference this spring. In 2020, BFI provided the structure and staff support to set up Berkeley Student Farms, which represents a cohesive vision for food systems education that mixes practical horticultural experience on campus gardens with basic needs advocacy. We also recently hired an Agroecology and Wellness Coordinator, ab banks, to help students connect the idea of the land as a site for not only research and education but also wellness.

As we move forward, we’re looking beyond campus, thinking more about the role between science and movement and how BFI can best support the community-based organizations, advocacy groups, and growers creating the needed systems change.

Charisma Acey sitting in front of a bookshelf

Charisma Acey.

Photo by Mathew Burciaga.

Charisma Acey

BFI Faculty Director
Associate Professor of City and Regional Planning, College of Environmental Design

What priorities do you bring to BFI as faculty director?

Part of my mission as an urban planner is to see food-growing spaces as essential infrastructure in cities—the same way we see parks and museums. Before taking a leadership role at BFI, I conducted a project partially funded by BFI with Timothy Bowles, Professor of Cooperative Extension Jennifer Sowerwine, and community partners that emphasized the importance of urban agroecology for addressing food security. Beyond nutrition, there are so many benefits to having these spaces in our cities. They serve as gathering places for community organizing, create educational opportunities, and offer carbon sequestration and other climate benefits. Yet there are systemic challenges—reliance on volunteer labor, insecure land tenure, high cost of water—because urban gardens are not seen as vital city infrastructure.

I’m currently working with Susana Matias to evaluate SB 1000, which represents the first time city and county planning offices are proactively addressing past harms in land-use decision making. We’re tracking the implementation and progress of this law to see how land-use planning can advance food access and equity.

What inspired BFI to add racial equity as a fourth focus area?

Inequities impact every aspect of the food system, from issues of access to governance and decision-making. When it comes to land and labor exploitation, a lot of that inequity is racialized. Equity has always been embedded in BFI’s efforts toward agroecology, food access, and fair labor, but calling it out is important.

A few years ago, BFI did an internal assessment of racial equity to examine how we can best advance racial justice both within our institution and in the food system. As a result, we formed the racial equity focus area in 2021 to name equity as fundamental to everything we do to advance a just food system. This focus area has influenced how we approach partnerships and work with communities on the front lines of advancing food justice.

This focus also relates to one of our initial findings in our SB 1000 research. The law allows planners to integrate environmental justice goals throughout a city’s General Plan. However, we found that cities that wrote a standalone environmental justice element—a single place in the General Plan that lists goals and policies specifically related to equity—often included more effective policies that move the needle on food justice. Centering equity, making it a targeted goal, is key.

Where do you see BFI going in the next ten years?

Strong community partnerships are vital so we can better leverage the research and resources of the University for change on the ground. That goes hand in hand with policy work and the experience Jeanne brings as executive director. As we move forward, BFI will continue to do the translational work that turns research into evidence for policymaking. I would also like to see BFI impact international work, since many of our affiliated faculty work on issues around the world. Food systems issues aren’t only in the U.S.; they are inherently global.

Image of Jean Merrill

Jeanne Merrill.

Photo by Mathew Burciaga.

Jeanne Merrill

BFI Executive Director

You bring to BFI significant experience in food and agricultural policy. What are some career milestones?

I started my career working with communities poisoned by agricultural pesticides, mainly methyl bromide fumigations on strawberry fields adjacent to homes and schools. As a community organizer, I worked with people along the California Central Coast, and eventually, that work resulted in the first restrictions on methyl bromide fumigation in the state.

In 2009, I co-founded the California Climate and Agriculture Network, or CalCAN. At that time, the conversations about climate change in Sacramento and Washington, D.C., did not include agriculture and how sustainable, agroecological practices could help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and make farms more resilient. During my 14 years as policy director at CalCAN, we sponsored bills to establish in California what became known as the Climate Smart Agriculture programs, which include the Healthy Soils Program that incentivizes farmers to store carbon and improve soil health.

How does policy promote just and equitable food systems?

Policy can be a very powerful tool to advance agroecology, good food access, fair and healthy jobs, and racial equity—the four areas of focus at BFI. But, to achieve transformational change that truly accelerates food justice, policy efforts need to center farmers and communities of color.

They also need to be grounded in the latest research. At CalCAN, we aimed to pass bills that included an honest, science-backed assessment of how agroecological farming could make a difference for climate adaptation and mitigation. We formed a Science and Technical Advisory Council, to call upon researchers to inform legislation, which includes Timothy Bowles and other notable ecologists and agricultural scientists like Stephen Wheeler of UC Davis and Ruth Dahlquist-Willard, who is now with the UC Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program.

Berkeley Food Institute plays a crucial role here. As we say in our mission statement, we leverage university resources in partnership with communities to inform food systems policy at the state and federal levels.

What are your goals for BFI going forward?

BFI has built an impressive foundation of cross-disciplinary research, education programs, and community engagement. We now have the opportunity to scale those efforts. We’ve brought research from our affiliated faculty to legislators and created opportunities for faculty and students to engage with policy. My vision is to see policymakers come to us so that our research can inform the conversations happening in Sacramento and D.C. I would also like to see our alumni among those policymakers, researchers, and other leaders making a difference to advance equitable and resilient food systems across the world.