Exterior of Nancy Nicholas Hall in the evening, with lamps and windows glowing.
News & Events

Three SoHE faculty put food first: Working at the intersection of culture, knowledge and food

Editor’s note: This article was originally published as part of SoHE’s 2020 alumni print mailer. View the full mailer on our alumni page.

Food is both a central, shared experience of everyday human life and a nexus of cultural, political, environmental, and economic questions that speak to our broader values as a society. Drs. Jennifer Gaddis, Mariaelena Huambachano, and Judi Bartfeld study food systems in depth from different yet intersecting angles, all committed to advancing healthy, whole meals for more people in communities across the U.S. and the world.

American school lunches as a nexus of food justice

Jennifer Gaddis Faculty
Dr. Jennifer Gaddis

Dr. Jennifer Gaddis, SoHE’s Jane Rafferty Thiele Faculty Fellow and Assistant Professor in Civil Society and Community Studies, has found a resonant touchstone for her research interests in the humble American public school lunch. With op-eds earlier this year in the New York Times and Washington Post, as well as the publication last fall of her first book, The Labor of Lunch: Why We Need Real Food and Real Jobs in American Public Schools, Gaddis has woven together feminist, environmentalist, and labor rights questions at a compelling site of concern for many parents and caregivers across America.

“About a decade into my research on the subject,” Gaddis reflects, “I’m convinced that we need a universal, free, eco-friendly school lunch program that provides all students with healthy, tasty, culturally appropriate meals.” Her insights have only gained more traction in the wake of pandemic-related school shutdowns across the U.S. as many families struggle with increased food insecurity and the loss of an important source of meals for their children. A recent article in The Atlantic quoted Gaddis at length on an often overlooked group of frontline workers: those in public school cafeterias still trying to prepare and deliver healthy food to kids in their communities, even at risk to their own health and safety.

Centering food sovereignty

Dr. Mariaelena Huambachano, also of Civil Society and Community Studies, investigates food and seed sovereignty in the context of two Indigenous communities: the Māori of Aotearoa New Zealand and the Quechua peoples of Peru, which are the subject of her chapter in the newly published Routledge Handbook of Sustainable and Regenerative Food Systems.

Mariaelena Huambachano
Dr. Mariaelena Huambachano

In particular, Huambachano developed and uses the ‘Khipu Model,’ which is an action-oriented and transformative approach of reclaiming Indigenous and underrepresented voices within research. She recently won a fellowship for the 2020–21 academic year to support her writing and was selected to assist the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization by contributing research on the topic of promoting youth engagement and employment in food and farming systems.

“Indigenous people have millennia of cultural practices that inform a deep connection with their lands and waters,” Huambachano shares. “With our planet at a crossroads ecologically, socially, politically… it is imperative that we honor this wealth of knowledge and draw it into conversation with more dominant approaches to problem-solving.”

Food policy for all

Headshot of Judi Bartfeld
Dr. Judi Bartfeld

Dr. Judi Bartfeld is SoHE’s Meta Schroeder Beckner Outreach Professor in Consumer Science and holds a joint appointment with UW–Madison Division of Extension as a Food Security Research and Policy Specialist. She is a nationally recognized expert on food insecurity and food assistance programs and in 2014 won the USDA Secretary’s Honor Award.

Beyond these accolades, though—and what distinguishes her as a human ecologist at heart—is her passion for making research and data available, understandable, and actionable to non-academics. Since the start of the pandemic, Bartfeld has focused on understanding how COVID-19 is impacting food insecurity in Wisconsin.

Her efforts include compiling data to understand which parts of the state face the greatest risk; working with Feeding Wisconsin to learn about the circumstances of people seeking emergency food assistance; and partnering with Extension educators to assess food insecurity and food access among families with school-aged children. “When local stakeholders can use the research I conduct and the data I share to help strengthen food access in their own communities,” she explains, “that’s the most rewarding part of my work.”