Thursday, June 26, 2014

Agrobiodiversity and Food Security: Barriers and incentives to the incorporation of native and traditional crops into household diets in Bolivia

Today’s post comes from Global Food Fellow, Alder Keleman MESc’06, MA’12, PhD ’15. The Yale Sustainable Food Project’s Global Food Fellows Program funds students who have proposed an innovative research topic or internship, pursuing ideas that could overturn the ecological, social, and economic deficiencies of today’s predominant food system.

Hello! My name is Alder Keleman, and I’m writing to introduce myself. I am a fifth-year doctoral student in environmental anthropology, a joint program hosted by the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, the Yale Anthropology Department, and the New York Botanical Gardens. I’m receiving support from the YSFP Global Food Fellowship this summer to help me put the finishing touches on my dissertation research. For the better part of the last two years, I’ve been based in Cochabamba, Bolivia, where I’m studying the role that agrobiodiversity (or native and traditional crops) plays in household diets, and in food culture more broadly.

My dissertation explores one of the great conundrums in the contemporary study of agrobiodiversity: among the regions which boast the world’s richest crop diversity, many also harbor high levels of human poverty. This paradox becomes even more puzzling when taking into account a growing body of research suggesting that native and traditional crops are often highly nutritious. For example, quinoa (native to the Andes) has become famous for its high-quality protein; minor leafy greens or yellow-fleshed sweet potatoes are rich in vitamins; and brightly colored crops, like Mexican maize or Andean purple potatoes, exhibit high levels of antioxidants. Nonetheless, in many crop centers of origin, including the Andes, the Chiapanecan/Guatemalan highlands, the Horn of Africa, and Northeastern India, levels of malnutrition are worryingly high, especially among children. Meanwhile, native and traditional crop varieties are themselves is under threat due to climate change, agricultural modernization, and increasing rural-urban migration.

These patterns hold true for Bolivia. Despite being a center of origin and diversity for potato, quinoa, maize, peanut, and many other important food crops, Bolivia exhibits the highest levels of poverty and malnutrition in South America. In the region where I am working, my own data suggests that stunting in children under age five affects approximately one third of the population. Studies have shown that stunting has important ramifications not only for the physical health of children, but also for their capacity for academic achievement, and even their long-run earning potential.

But why should this be the case, in a place where nutrient-rich foods should theoretically be available in abundance? To untangle this puzzle, my dissertation project takes an interdisciplinary approach, using both quantitative and qualitative field methods. Specifically, I am focusing on an 80-km rural-urban corridor stretching between the city of Cochabamba and the municipality of Colomi, a highly ecologically diverse region which stretches from the Andean subtropics (approx. 2200 masl) to the highland puna (above 4000 masl).

Through qualitative ethnographic research, I am gathering data on the past and contemporary culinary uses of crops like native potatoes, quinoa, oca, and tarwi, and the cultural meanings with which they are invested. In quantitative research, I am carrying out a two-period survey with 258 households in the rural-urban corridor stretching from the city of Cochabamba to the municipality of Colomi. This survey seeks to quantify the extent to which vulnerable households are consuming NTC’s, and to understand the contribution that these crops make to household nutritional well being.

Funding from the Yale Sustainable Food Project is supporting an important sub-element of this larger dissertation project. In parallel to the second phase of my household survey, I have been reporting data on child height-weight measurements back to the communities in which the first phase of the survey was carried out. As part of this process, with the help of a team of Quechua-speaking nutritionists, we are organizing workshops to provide basic nutrition education that will help female household heads understand the types, causes, and treatments of child malnutrition. These workshops also serve as a forum for gathering additional qualitative data using participatory methods. Specifically, we are exploring the local conditions that generate food insecurity, and asking what barriers (or incentives) exist for the incorporation of nutrient-rich native and traditional crops into household diets. These meetings also serve as jumping-off points for a series of oral histories and household observations with female household heads, which we are undertaking in five of the communities under study.

These activities bridge the qualitative and quantitative aspects of my project, and provide new information to communities and households, which will let them better address nutrition and child health. Additionally, through these activities we hope to identify, distill, and disseminate “best practices” in the local use of native and traditional crops. With the support of my local host organization, Fundación PROINPA, we plan to use the data gathered to generate a suite of Quechua and Spanish-language educational materials, outlining positive uses of NTC’s to underpin good nutrition.

Of course, I am not doing this all on my own. I am lucky enough to have the support of a team of 10 bright young Bolivians – a group consisting primarily of nutritionists from Cochabamba’s Universidad Mayor de San Simón (UMSS), but including individuals with training in agronomy, linguistics, and nursing. Most of them are fluent Quechua speakers, and all have received training in social science data collection and research ethics. As a complement to the support of my host organization, Fundación PROINPA, I am also collaborating with colleagues at the local branch of the NGO, World Vision, and coordinating with government-run health posts at the community level. The Universidad Mayor de San Simón’s Biomedical Research is also providing intellectual and institutional support for these activities.

In sum, the activities supported by YSFP’s Global Food Fellowship are the capstone to two years of fieldwork here in Bolivia, and are providing a rewarding way to give back to the communities and the institutions that have supported my research. I’m looking forward to sharing our progress along the way!

Alder Keleman is a fifth-year doctoral student in environmental anthropology, a joint program hosted by the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, the Yale Anthropology Department, and the New York Botanical Gardens.

Alder Keleman, Lucy Vera Quinaya, and Vanessa Calle Cruz prepare survey materials in the subtropical town of Corani Pampa. (Taken by Alark Saxena; 13 June 2014) 

Nutritionists Fridda Ramos Rodríguez and Marioni Enriquez Foronda explain the use of nutritional supplements to combat stunting to a group of mothers in Toncolí. These supplements were provided by the NGO World Vision to families with children showing low height-for-age. (Taken by Alder Keleman; 10 May 2014.) 

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Hi, Margaret here. I’m a Lazarus summer intern from Iowa City, Iowa. This is the first summer I’ve spent entirely away from home, and I’ve been thinking lately about the differences between farming in New Haven and the rural Midwest. It has to do with a lot more than geography: the Yale Farm’s categorization as an urban farm has all sorts of ecological, economic, and cultural significance, all of which I am slowly starting to learn about.

Maybe the most obvious signifiers of the Farm’s urban setting are the pieces of glass and metal that occasionally surface, but this land’s tenuous status as agricultural area is also manifested in the composition of the soil and in the topography of the Farm itself. In the field closest to the road the soil has tested high for lead contamination, so we only grow flowers there, no edible food. In a month or so, that field will be full of blooming zinnias, sunflowers, and other brightly-colored plants; a lovely yet somewhat surreal buffer zone with truck exhaust on one side and poisonous metals underneath.

I think this strange paradox is at the heart of urban farming. Earlier this week, Stacy Spell, a New Haven community organizer and gardening guru, came by to pick up some tomato seedlings for the many community gardens he runs in the city. He talked to us about his experiences with his newest project, which involves planting vegetables and flowers in empty crates and barrels around some of New Haven’s roughest neighborhoods, and described how these micro-gardens give people something to take ownership of, a reason to be out in the streets. But he also stressed the aesthetic aspect: “we’re bringing beauty into a place that’s not supposed to be beautiful,” he said.

For Spell, this is a constructive contradiction; the process of creating societal change is closely linked to the difficult, labor-intensive work of carving out a fertile green space in an antagonistic environment. The struggle of transforming land has deep parallels with the struggle to construct societies.

While Spell’s aims involve food justice, I can’t help but think of more pernicious uses of agriculture as social engineering in American history, including the plantation economy. The intersection of food, place, and the past, was something that another guest on the farm, Michael Twitty, discussed. Twitty, a culinary historian, Judaic scholar, and food writer (check out his website shared with us some of his experiences investigating food as cultural connector in America’s various diasporic communities. He spoke particularly about African American food stories, about how the terrible isolation of being transplanted from one place to another could be alleviated by communal cooking and sharing of cultural knowledge about food.

Here too, a paradox is at work: the pain of separation, of oppression, creates the conditions in which a new kind of connection and power can be formed. Twitty doesn’t hold any utopic vision of a perfectly integrated, perfectly multicultural society, but he thinks if we make any progress towards understanding those different from ourselves, it will come through food, and the places where food is grown.

So far this summer, I’ve loved getting to know my fellow interns in the shared space of the Yale Farm, but I can’t wait for the community to keep on expanding. This Friday is the first volunteer day of the summer. If you’re in New Haven, feel free to stop by 345 Edwards St: eat a strawberry or a leaf of kale, and tell us a little about where you’re from and your food story. We’d love to see you there!

Friday, June 13, 2014

Hi! My name is Sarah, and I am a Lazarus Summer Intern from New York City. This week has been pretty wet and chilly on the farm, two weather phenomena for which I’m sure the six of us will be aching come mid-July. On the farm we’ve been productive despite this gloomy weather. We transplanted eggplants, peppers, potatoes and lavender; cleared a huge jungle of weeds and vines behind our Prophaus; and moved the chicken coop so that we can put our hens to work fertilizing a bed.   


Off the farm, we’ve had an amazing trio of afternoon activities. On Tuesday, we sat in on a dissertation defense at the school of Forestry and Environmental Studies. Jen Gaddis summarized—thankfully—her argument for a 250-page dissertation entitled “Fit to Feed: Labor, ecology, and the remaking of the National School Lunch Program.” On Wednesday Mark Bomford, the director of the YSFP, taught the first of two classes on farm economics, and on Thursday our farm manager Jeremy Oldfield, gave us an introduction to soil. 

Each experience was incredibly informative, and Jen’s and Mark’s seemed intimately linked. Jen’s primary argument is that the school lunch program will be much improved if we place more value on cafeteria workers. A decades-long effort to reduce the price of school lunches and get all students fed has led to a culture where “lunch ladies”—and they are, it seems, mostly ladies—are both forced to “heat and serve” pre-made lunches of which they are not proud and valued at how many meals per hour they can “make.” There is no economic value attached to the extra time cafeteria workers put in preparing tastier food and caring for their students which help prevent these children from taking the legally-required vegetables and whole grains and dumping them straight into the trash bin. 

In the same way that we undervalue the work cafeteria workers do because we do not place economic value on it, we can also look at agricultural laborers as undervalued workers. Mark explained that agricultural jobs are “at the bottom of the barrel” because on large, monocultural, mechanized farms, the work a person does becomes dull and repetitive. Because it is unskilled work, workers can be paid less, much like cafeteria workers who merely heat meals. These jobs become undesirable and unrespectable. When we look at the food kids take and not the food they actually eat, how do we account for the time a lunch lady spends making sure a student will enjoy his veggies? When we look at how many calories or cabbage heads per hour a farm can produce, how do we account for the extra care a farmer puts into a task because she enjoys it? Ultimately, it’s impossible to quantify the cost of the environmental impacts of spraying a bed of plants versus the cost of paying workers to hand-weed it or the cost of the impact that student’s unbalanced meal might have on her future health bills versus the cost of preparing a more delicious lunch from scratch. Which leaves us in a difficult position. 

Tomorrow, to continue with a theme, those of us who aren’t selling at market will be canvasing with the Food Policy Council, spreading the word that New Haven continues to provide free and reduced-price lunches to qualifying students over the summer. I hope those lunches will be both delicious and nutritious; according to Jen, New Haven is taking strides in that direction. 

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Hey there y’all. Ryan here. My hometown is North Andover, Massachusetts, and I’m the first of the 2014 Lazarus Summer Interns to post about our time on the farm. Overall, I couldn’t ask for to be part of a better group or program. One week has felt like one month, already binding the group together in a short period of time. But despite all the summertime bonding, there was one event that topped them all this week: the Big Apple Barbeque Block Party this past weekend located in Madison Square Park. 

While my hometown up north might deceive you, my true nature is as a country boy. I love the tales of heartache and love, I love the culture of farming and family closeness, I love the banjo and campfire memories, and most importantly, I love the food. All my life, I had waited for a chance to truly stamp myself as a country boy beyond just the terrible tan around my neck and arms. This past weekend, however, my fellow interns and I became official country kids thanks to Jimmy Hagood and his South Carolina BlackJack Barbeque grub. With over a hundred hogs cooked for a minimum of eleven hours, the Lazarus crew handled more meat than any of us had had ever dreamed possible. 

Though Jimmy’s meat may have fallen off the bone, the sandwiches certainly didn’t make themselves, which we were constantly reminded of throughout the day. As soon as we arrived we were forearm deep in luscious, juicy, mouth watering shredded pork, tearing it into pieces and following the mantra, “Only keep what you would want to eat yourself.” I speak for us all when I say that we were tempted to taste check every piece of meat we saw. After stripping the meat came the seasoning, adding a bit of spice and zest without losing the natural flavor of the hog itself. With the meat ready, next came the divide and conquer tactic: the gang was split into various stations, each with a time-sensitive and critical task. With only 9 paper sandwich boats fitting per tray, there was a constant stream of boat making, tray stacking, bun preparing, coleslaw stuffing, sandwich packing, BBQ sauce pouring, tray distributing, empty tray pulling, empty tray washing, and repeating. With so many hogs, so many people wanting Jimmy’s food, and meat galore, it’s safe to say we averaged a tray per minute for six full hours. Though our first rodeo on the BBQ bandwagon, we kept the food coming along quite nicely, each taking turns at the different stations, and managing to sneak a quick five minute “quality control” taste test of the food we were preparing.

Most importantly, however, we all learned the key to great BBQ: great people. Barbeque has many shapes and styles, names and textures, places and preferences. But the key ingredient to making the whole thing worthwhile is enjoying the work one does, enjoying the people one works with, and engaging in serious fun the entire time. With commentating from the sandwich maker who cried, “This ain’t our first rodeo!” and “Pork Party people! We got a Pork Party on our hands!” and “Come on y’all them people look hungry so let’s give them what they want!”, the BBQ helpers lost sight of all our efforts. We internalized the fact that our labor was for a greater purpose and we valued that purpose more than the food itself. Not a minute went by without a smile, a laugh, a friendly conversation, or a cry of motivation during our time with Jimmy and his pit. And while the food at the Yale Farm may not be glazed in a savory sauce and roasted for at least 11 hours, we go to work each morning knowing that the people we impact are more important than the soreness at the end of the day. That’s where farmers, country boy wannabes, and the BBQ pitmasters all share a common thread: making food for yourself is necessary but making food for others is priceless. Savor that moment, understand it, and relive it as much as you can.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Today’s post comes from Global Food Fellow, Austin Bryniarski CC ’16. The Yale Sustainable Food Project’s Global Food Fellows Program funds students who have proposed an innovative research topic or internship, pursuing ideas that could overturn the ecological, social, and economic deficiencies of today’s predominant food system.

As I worked the land at the Yale Farm last summer, I kept finding myself asking questions about the laws and regulations that shape the way we eat. At all levels of government, the seemingly invisible forces that affect our food system became more and more visible. Politico headlines cried of the battles being waged in Washington over the possibility that Farm Bill nutrition programs would see cuts. Meanwhile, the New Haven Food Policy Council met once a month to organize a mayoral debate centered on issues like urban agriculture, food justice and how those nutrition program cuts would affect the city’s food security.

This summer, I get to look at these very issues under a microscope. As a Summer Intern at Harvard Law School’s Food Law and Policy Clinic, I will be working on projects that revolve around food policy councils and food systems planning, food access and obesity prevention, and sustainable food production. Put simply, the clinic takes on projects from real clients with the objective of taking down the barriers that create problems in the food system. The Food Law and Policy Clinic looks at policy at all levels of government, and recently had a spate of media attention for a report about how “sell by” date labels actually don’t mean anything.

My projects focus on food access: how to increase the supply and demand of sustainably grown produce in Appalachia, and how to best implement a Healthy Corner Store Initiative to increase urban food security. Both of these projects seek to reduce the rate of obesity and diet-related disease through food policy, but also privilege the environmental and economic benefits of a local — even decentralized — food system. For the rest of the summer, I will catalog the two projects and provide insights into what food policy looks like in action.

Austin Bryniarski ’16 is a “rising” junior in Calhoun College majoring in Environmental Studies. During the year, you can find him at the Yale Farm as a Harvest leader (and Farm Intern emeritus) or a local coffee shop as a writer for various campus publications. While he’s upping the ante this summer as a paleo-vegetarian eater, he generally abstains from carbs. He is a Lazarus Global Food Fellow at the Yale Sustainable Food Project. He hates the word “rising.”

Friday, June 6, 2014

Midair Musings: Anticipating a summer rethinking sustainable agriculture in Nepal

Yale Sustainable Food Project’s Global Food Fellows Program supports the extracurricular study of food systems. In our inaugural year, four students proposed an innovative research topic or internship, pursuing ideas that could overturn the ecological, social, and economic deficiencies of today’s predominant food system. As a part of their experience, they will be checking in with the YSFP (and the world) through our Tumblr – stay tuned to read their reports and revelations! 

As I write this, I sit some 35,000 feet above Northern India as the final leg of my journey to Kathmandu, Nepal—my home for the summer—nears completion. By some official measures, my summer hasn’t even begun: I’ve yet to arrive, much less begin my internship. But it very much feels like the journey is underway. Right as I was settling into my seat for the final flight, the person in the neighboring seat—a Nepali man named Deepak—said “hello.” Deepak, it turns out, lives in Connecticut and is returning home to visit his parents, who are in their 80s and still reside in a rural community northwest of Kathmandu. His parents are subsistence farmers, and Deepak grew up on their farm. Upon finishing high school, he began a life for himself in Kathmandu, becoming the proprietor of a hotel. The Maoist Rebellion, which tore through the country during the late 1990s and early 2000s, put an end to the viability of his business. Ultimately Deepak moved to the US in search of better economic opportunities.

In broad strokes Deepak’s story exemplifies many of the challenges facing Nepal. He’s the child of rural subsistence farmers and deeply patriotic. He sought better opportunities in his own country, but felt the need to move away when the tenuous political infrastructure interfered with his livelihood. Deepak’s story also raises the question of how Nepal’s lush farmland and extensive water resources can be best used for the economic interests of rural residents without jeopardizing the country’s environmental sensitivity. This summer I’ll be interning at the Asia Network for Sustainable Agriculture and Bioresources (ANSAB), an NGO in Nepal dedicated to considering this question. One of its central projects is to help empower rural people to practice agriculture in a sustainable, economically viable manner. I’ll be working with the Biodiversity, Ecosystem Services, and Climate Change team at the organization’s headquarters in Kathmandu. We’ll be doing research into the effectiveness of ANSAB’s existing programs, ways in which best practices can be implemented, and potential policy solutions.

Over the course of the next few months, I’ll be reflecting in this blog on my experiences at ANSAB and my assessment of this organization’s effort to foster sustainable systems of agriculture in a nation known for its biodiversity and contending with industrial modernization. Rather than provide a list of nuanced details about the specifics of my project, I’m going to suggest you read this recent piece in The New York Times by Mark Bittman. Bittman seems to charge all of us with “trying to see the big picture” in the food system and he’s not incorrect. But, this ought to involve attempting to put forward a partial solution to address this global challenge, like the approach taken by ANSAB. If this summer adds to the nuance of my understanding of the global food system, creates more questions than simple answers, and fosters more inspiration than discouragement, I’ll consider it a success.

Jacob Wolf-Sorokin is a rising junior at Yale University majoring in Ethics, Politics, and Economics, and an Academic-Year Intern at the Yale Sustainable Food Project. His summer internship at ANSAB is funded through the generous support of the Lazarus Global Food Fellows Program at the Yale Sustainable Food Project, the International Studies Fellowship at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, and the Tristan Perlroth Prize for Summer Foreign Travel at the MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Photos from the CT NOFA conference brought to you by Eamon Heberlein ‘16:

Vendors at NOFA ranged from locally produced foodstuffs to renewable energy products, farm tools, and natural health care.

Local Connecticut farmer sells winter preserves.  

YSFP students speak with Patrick Horan of Wallingfield Farms, CT.


Keynote speaker Fred Kirschenmann addressed the need to provide opportunities and securities for young and aspiring farmers.

Hi, folks. For today’s installment of CT NOFA feedback Jackson Blum ‘15 writes:

Patrick Horan, who runs Waldingfield Farm, spoke about how a farmer can venture into selling value-added products in addition to raw produce, turning his experiences selling his farm’s heirloom pasta sauce and Bloody Mary mix into teaching moments. For a farmer to get into the swing of selling value-added products, he must have reasons that are neither strictly economic nor strictly personal. On the financial side of things, the world of consumer goods is tough to carve a niche into. There is a great deal of product homogenization visible on the shelves of a grocery store; for any category of food, you have several buying options. A wide range of choice is good for the consumer, but can make it hard for a guy like Patrick. To make himself stand out, a farmer has to sell a story packaged up just like the tomato sauce; label design and a sense of nostalgia are just as important as quality of ingredients.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Today’s post comes from Yale Sustainable Food Project intern Shizue RocheAdachi DC’15. Shizue writes:

In a panel entitled “Earning a Living as a Farmer: Value Add and Niche Marketing”, including such local ag. “celebrities” and YSFP friends as Dina Brewster, Patrick Horan, and Steve Munno, I found myself particularly interested in a rather unrelated tangent: farming as an individual, as an LLC, as a non-profit, and with and without a board of directors.  Steve talked extensively on his positive experience working with a board that oversees the Massaro Farm, a community farm that includes a CSA.  Steve is the farm manager but is held accountable to a board of community members, most of whom were critical in the creation of the farm in the first place after the land was donated to the town to protect its undeveloped status.  This sort of board-farmer relationship enforces extensive planning by the farmer (a good thing) and provides a much welcome safety net, ensuring community buy-in, support, and capital (and a guaranteed first batch of CSA members). 

Yet for some farmers, having to convince a board of ten or more that the farm needs to buy such-and-such tool for such-and-such task and right now creates too many hoops to jump through than seems worthwhile.  Dina expressed how frustrated she would be in Steve’s position.  Dina is held accountable to a board but it is a board of family members.  The land she farms is family land and so her relatives are co-owners but as a board they are more concerned with the overall vision for the land than the day-to-day operations of the farm and hold far less governing power.  Patrick, on the opposite end of the spectrum, works with his brothers but has no board looking over his shoulder: he fails by his own hand (and his own savings) but he can also move forward faster and quicker and call his successes and the land his own. 

What I took away from the tangent, as it related to my personal ambitions, was that although perhaps restrictive, it seems that coming into a farm manager position (with a long term commitment) could be a good way for young farmers to establish themselves.  Young, aspiring farmers who can’t afford land on their own, don’t have a good source of capital, and don’t want to run into incredible debt and who are also new to the rural county they want to farm in, have an opportunity within this model to begin farming with less risk and financial uncertainty.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Our third installment of CT NOFA coverage comes from Rafi Bilder DC ‘16. Rafi writes:

Even before the seminars and workshops started, I could tell that this year’s NOFA Connecticut Winter Conference would be a crystal clear example of the diversity of the sustainable agriculture world. The moment I walked into the bustling exhibit hall, I got the picture. In the same room, there were animal rights activists and chicken purveyors; anti-oil and gas organizations and companies advertising the newest and best tractors and machinery to eager farmers perusing the hall. The first workshop I went to only furthered this belief that the sustainable food and ag world comes in numerous shapes and sizes. After hearing a presentation by some of the leadership of the American Farmland Trust on strategies to secure affordable farmland (for beginning farmers), I was reminded once again: While we are certainly on our way to attaining a more systematic approach to small-scale farming, there is still much work to be done. There is no one “right answer” to helping new farmers get off the ground and achieve success. As this movement grows and grows, umbrella organizations like NOFA are going to be increasingly important if we are going to work on achieving, large-scale systematic change - and this is certainly no easy task, considering how diverse this movement clearly is.