Tammara Soma | Setting the Table for Food Justice: The Role of Community-Engaged Research

2021, PFL 2021-2022, Equity + Justice, Climate + Environment, President's Faculty Lectures

Who has a seat at the food policy table and who gets to define the problem and shape the solutions when it comes to addressing issues such as food insecurity?

These are some of the questions that I seek to answer with my colleagues and students at SFU’s Food Systems Lab. Applying community-engaged research methods, this woman-led research lab is focused on centring equity, justice, and particularly the voices of Indigenous partners in shaping our collective vision to achieve sustainable, decolonized and just food systems for all. Informed by the Islamic and Indigenous teachings that food is medicine, I will showcase why worldviews matter when it comes to planning for food.

Insights from citizen scientists will demonstrate why food is more than just a commodity. Rather, food represents family, identity, culture and spirituality.

— Tammara Soma

Tue, 23 Nov 2021

6:30 p.m. (PT)

Djavad Mowafaghian World Art Centre
SFU Goldcorp Centre for the Arts
149 West Hastings Street
Vancouver, B.C.

The event will also be livestreamed.

Closed captioning in English will be available at this event for both online and in-person attendees.

The President's Faculty Lectures

The President’s Faculty Lectures shine a light on the research excellence at Simon Fraser University. Hosted by SFU president Joy Johnson, these free public lectures celebrate cutting-edge research and faculty that engage with communities and mobilize knowledge to make real-world impacts.

Each short lecture by an SFU researcher will be followed by a conversation with Joy Johnson and an audience Q&A session livestreamed from the Djavad Mowafaghian World Art Centre at SFU’s Goldcorp Centre for the Arts.

This year, lecturers will approach the themes of equity and justice from a variety of disciplines.

Tammara Soma

Tammara Soma (MCIP, RPP) is an assistant professor at SFU’s School of Resource and Environmental Management and the research director of SFU’s Food Systems Lab. Canadian Organic Growers named Food Systems Lab as one of four “women-run projects that are redefining agriculture.” Originally hailing from Indonesia, Soma conducts research on issues pertaining to food system planning and the circular economy. Soma is a co-editor of the Routledge Handbook of Food Waste and was selected as a committee member of the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine for the consensus study “A National Strategy to Reduce Food Waste at the Consumer Level.”

Event summary

Recap of Setting the Table for Food Justice: The Role of Community Engaged-Research with Tammara Soma

By Des'ree Isibor, Program Assistant, SFU Public Square

In the second installment of the 2021/2022 President’s Faculty Lectures, Tammara Soma, an assistant professor at SFU’s School of Resource and Environmental Management and the co-founder and research director of SFU’s Food Systems Lab, led a wholesome discussion exploring how her worldviews have shaped her beliefs around food systems, as well as the diverse principles and discoveries of like-minded community-engaged researchers.

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With the table set, Soma welcomed her guests and introduced herself as the host of this dinner. On the menu for her lecture, she highlighted the inadequacies of the Canadian food policy, offered solutions anchored in food justice, and dished out valuable lessons from other food justice scholars.

Soma began her lecture by recounting the recent storms and floods in B.C. and their impact on food availability to those who were affected. She discussed the shortcomings of the Canadian food systems which give few individuals an opportunity to eat with dignity while others depend on unstable food donations and remnants from the markets.

As the research director of SFU’s Food Systems Lab, Soma explained, she works hand-in-hand with local communities by providing equitable solutions to complex food systems concerns. She drew attention to underlying components of food systems that are often overlooked, such as our natural ecosystems, the land, oceans, animals and, possibly, outer space in the future. “For some, food systems include language, culture and spirituality,” she said in describing the dynamic and multifaceted nature of our food systems.

Soma discussed the need to have justice at the core of food planning and other sustainability initiatives. Food justice is an encompassing field that studies the power dynamics in agricultural practices, decolonization, labour rights in food, disparities in food access and benefits of technologies, and other related areas. At the table for food justice, Soma pointed out that the most important people—individuals who are greatly impacted by inequities—are often left out in policymaking. Instead of focusing on surface-level issues, she urged policymakers to consider framing issues by asking: “Who should be heard?” and removing barriers that limit their participation.

In developing sustainable food systems that cater to all, Soma stated, “we have to be cautious about imposing a single worldview on defining what is sustainable.” A devout believer of Islam, she took her guests through a journey of exploring her Islamic worldview as it pertains to food justice.

Drawing from the teachings of Islam, Soma drew a parallel between the right to food provided in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights and Prophet Muhammad’s teachings that encourage Muslims to ensure those around them are not hungry while they are fully fed. While charitable deeds are important, there is even more room in regulatory and economic spheres to strengthen accountability and promote food justice. In the journey of situating herself, Soma discussed how her Indonesian heritage has opened her up to accepting multiple worldviews and advocating for “unity in diversity.”

Among the different initiatives that Tammara champions is Our Home, Our Food, Our Resilience, an initiative in partnership with UBC Forestry Labs and the Kitselas First Nation Lands & Resources Department to prioritize food systems resilience. In the face of unforeseen circumstances, food systems resilience plans establish a safety net for impacted communities and promote strong long-term food systems. Soma noted that using photography and the participation of citizen scientists in this project provided an inclusive storytelling lens that can better inform policymakers.

Another key objective of this initiative was to identify food assets mapped across different regions. A concern, Soma highlighted, is the lack of consensus on what “food assets” are. As a result, “ecological, cultural, spiritual and Indigenous food assets are often missing in food asset maps,” she said. With this barrier, she emphasized the need to re-evaluate whose voices need to be heard and accordingly involved in food policy planning.

Soma spotlighted her six “food justice heroes” who have shaped her perspectives over time as a food justice scholar and practitioner. They include the late Dr. Wayne Roberts, Dr. Aaron Mills, Melanie Goodchild, Dr. Marie Wilson, Belinda Li and Prophet Muhammad. 

  1. Dr. Wayne Roberts (1944–2021), a master cross-pollinator, challenged Soma's perspective on thinking about “all the things we should do for food” and prompted her to ask this question instead: “How can food help?” She stated that food can help by creating opportunities for economic, ecological and community development.
  2. Dr. Aaron Mills, an Indigenous scholar and professor at McGill University, taught Soma the principle of “all my relations.” This principle applies not only to humans, but to plants and animals with whom we co-exist. Soma cited the example of the langar, which is a community kitchen at a Sikh gurdwara that serves meals equally and at no cost to people, irrespective of their economic status or backgrounds, as a spiritual food asset that demonstrates the principle of “all my relations.” Animal relations are also vital, Soma noted, in choosing to build a respectful relationship with animals and not simply one that seeks to only harvest or exploit them excessively.
  3. Melanie Goodchild, former advisor to the Food Systems Lab, taught Soma that “food is medicine.” Soma discussed the findings of citizen scientists who encourage the use of herbs and Indigenous medicines by understanding the purposefulness of every plant and perceiving them as “more than weeds.”
  4. Dr. Marie Wilson, a Truth and Reconciliation Commissioner, taught Soma to “centre the survivors at the heart of your story.” Highlighting the stories of Indigenous scholars, Soma recounted the need to encourage the transmission of Indigenous food knowledge and preservation methods that echo their history and paths to survival. Advancing food justice also requires that “policymakers invest in Indigenous food knowledge and education centres in language preservation and reparations for harms done, because this is the just thing to do,” she said.
  5. Belinda Li, co-founder of the Food Systems Lab, has taught Soma to recognize equity and justice in innovations and research methodologies and prototypes or interventions. According to Soma, “ethical innovation also means being open to values and practices that challenge the dominant assumption.”
  6. Prophet Muhammad, Messenger of Allah, laid the foundation for Soma's belief in absolute justice, which applies extensively to food justice. She spotlighted community researchers’ findings in Vancouver about the realities of the homeless and poor in obtaining food from food banks. Not only is the food never enough to be distributed evenly, the nutritional value of the meals is not adequate either.

In the Q&A session moderated by SFU President Joy Johnson, Soma delved into the notion that food is not just a commodity but a “relation” that is characterized by a non-exploitative relationship. She stated that the enshrinement of the “right to food” and a closed-loop circular economy hold great potential for advancing food equity and justice. She shared that accountability is a key precept for community-engaged research, and findings have to be reviewed adequately before being published.

As a call to action, Soma encouraged citizens to join local food organizations that prioritize food justice. While her lecture covered several solutions for food justice, she summarized her top three strategies as: addressing systemic inequities by re-evaluating who should be at the table, closing wealth disparities by ensuring the wealthy pay taxes, and learning from one another as citizen scientists.



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