Below the Radar Transcript
Episode 126: setting the table for food justice — with tammara soma
Speakers: alyha bardi, am johal, tammara soma
Alyha Bardi 0:00
Hello listeners! I’m Alyha with Below the Radar, a knowledge democracy podcast. Below the Radar is recorded on the territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh peoples.
On this episode of Below the Radar, our host Am Johal is joined by Tammara Soma, food system planner, Assistant Professor at SFU and Co-Founder of the Food Systems Lab. Tammara talks about her work trying to create a more just and sustainable food system for all, and her experience doing community engaged research in this field. We hope you enjoy the episode!
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Am Johal 0:44
Welcome to Below the Radar. Really delighted that you could join us again this week. We're really excited to have Tammara Soma with us this week. She's an assistant professor in the Faculty of Resource and Environmental Management at SFU. She's also a researcher-in-residence with the Community-Engaged Research Initiative. Welcome Tammara.
Tammara Soma 1:04
My goodness, thank you so much for that intro. Thank you for the welcome.
Am Johal 1:08
Yeah, Tammara, I'm wondering, could we begin with you introducing yourself a little bit.
Tammara Soma 1:13
Absolutely. And I'd like to begin by acknowledging that I'm calling in to this podcast, from the unceded territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations. I am so grateful to be here. I am working at SFU. I'm an assistant professor with the School of Resource and Environmental Management, and also the co-founder and research director of the Food Systems Lab, a social innovation lab tackling food system planning issues, from farm to table and beyond, hopefully space, too. I'm a food system planner, I'm very passionate about creating a just and sustainable food system for all and very grateful to be a community-engaged researcher with CERi.
Am Johal 1:53
Yeah, and when you combine those things that you're working on: food system planning, community-based research, everything from waste management to the circular economy, there's so many different rabbit holes you can get into in terms of the different ways these things are being thought about in the contemporary moment on environmental issues, its relations to climate change, and other things. But I'm wondering if we can begin a little bit, if you could talk about how you got into your area of research. You did your PhD in planning at the University of Toronto, you’re a Trudeau scholar, but just wondering what drove you into this area of research?
Tammara Soma 2:32
That's a great question. And the thing is, I like to think that food is something that really connects us all. It's something that when I talk about food, anyone regardless of their age, whether it be a kindergartener or toddler to a senior resident, someone will always have something to say about food. And that's what really is exciting about food. For me, that kind of spark started during my undergraduate program, where a professor showed this documentary, and I still recommend this documentary to everyone. It's called Life and Debt. And it's set in Jamaica. It talks about the structural policies, you know, structural adjustment policies, run by international institutions, that basically impact everything from agriculture, to tourism, you know, to farming to retail, and just shaped the landscape in ways that I started noticing the patterns from Jamaica, to my home country of Indonesia. And then as I got into it more, in the literature more, you know, these are patterns that are happening around the world, whether it be you know, the way that lands are being taken away from peasants, how our retail market has been consolidated to the most powerful, how we have these paradoxes of food insecurity amidst massive food waste. All of these injustices, you know, are occurring all around the world. And I thought to myself, you know, if I had my choice of what to do, it would be really good to tackle an issue that basically can impact everyone. And so I got into food in that way.
Am Johal 4:00
In the work that you're doing on your dissertation, you also had connections with many community organizations that you also worked with. I'm wondering if you can talk a little bit about the work that you did for your doctoral dissertation, and also the links and working with community that you were doing at that time?
Tammara Soma 4:18
Well, actually, that's interesting, I think Am, a lot of people would think that my dissertation is my work at the Food Systems Lab. Interestingly, when I was doing my... it's like, as if I don't have enough work already. But that's just who I am, I guess. I did my dissertation on household food waste in Indonesia. And at the same time as I was running my dissertation study in Indonesia, I was also doing a study with my colleague, Belinda Li. And we established the Food Systems Lab, you know, during my dissertation, to really understand how to address the issue of wasted food in a more just and equitable way that is from a systems approach. So, you know, I had those two projects going on at the same time. In Indonesia, I worked with different households, with policymakers, with low-income community members to understand the transformation in the food landscape that's happening in Indonesia, that's creating this kind of disconnect between the producers, the farmers, and then the eaters. And then understanding how that impacts households with consumption patterns. So that's kind of on the one side. And for my research in Canada with Belinda Li, what we realized was that, you know, we were hearing over and over again, all of these different solutions to reduce food waste. And the solution was, hey, we have a lot of food waste in the system. And you know, whether it be from retailer to the farm level, why don't you just feed this food waste to the poor people, and then call it a win-win solution. And we thought to ourselves, you know, this is not necessarily a good way to, well not only frame the problem, but also create a solution that's kind of more incremental-based. And it's not really tackling the root injustices in the system, because the idea of feeding poor people food waste, it's just not a great idea at all. And so what we did with the Food Systems Lab and with my colleague, Belinda, is that we want to create a solution that is more collaborative, more just and that takes into account diverse perspectives. So we made sure to have migrant farmworkers in the room, we had food bank recipients, we had farmers from urban and rural contexts, we had direct managers of multinational retailers coming in. And I think being there at the table together, I like to think of my work as kind of setting a table and making sure that the people that should be at the table are there and have a voice and have a say. And that kind of leads me to the community-engaged research work that I do. That work is all about asking, you know, who needs to be at the table? Who does not have their voices represented? And that's kind of the work of a food system planner.
Am Johal 6:49
We just interviewed, last week, Paul Taylor, who works with Foodshare in Toronto. It's really interesting to hear some of his critiques of the charitable model, including of food banks, and their framing of the problem. And so it's really interesting to hear you speak this week as well, on these topics. And I'm wondering, you're just recently a researcher-in-residence with SFU's Community-Engaged Research initiative, wondering if you can speak a little bit about the work that you were doing while being a researcher-in-residence and doing other research work here in Vancouver?
Tammara Soma 7:23
Yes, and I would just like to say that it's such an honor and such a privilege to be identified and selected as an SFU researcher-in-residence. Not just for the acknowledgement and the profile, but also the financial support that's been provided to my students, like two of my students are CERi fellows. That's another great program to support students doing community-engaged work. And also just the grants, the additional grants that can help towards doing additional work with community members. And I know that the work of community-engaged researchers is basically fueled through these types of grants. And so that makes community-engaged work possible. So we've been doing a lot of amazing food-related work, with the support of CERi. We did one study on sustainable business adaptation during COVID-19, where we worked with various partners, including small retailers across the City of Vancouver and the Lower Mainland that were sustainable. And they had a lot of difficulties trying to maintain their sustainability and zero-waste practices during COVID, where risk and food safety and all of these things were, you know, kind of front and centre. And we worked with them to kind of leverage their voices and also identify innovative solutions that they've, you know, enacted in their respective businesses. We also did some exciting work with BC Poverty Reduction Coalition. We had a partnership with them, trying to understand the issues around food access and mobility with community members that are users of nonprofit food hubs, you know, so foodbanks, charities, soup kitchens, and what have you, and one of my students worked on that. And then we also had a study that was supported by CERi with various in-kind support on food asset mapping and trying to use citizen science to actually identify important food sites and spaces in the City of Vancouver. And make sure that community members’ voices are represented when we think about what food spaces and sites are important for our community food security. So, those are just a few but, I hope there will be long term collaboration and future for more research with CERi.
Am Johal 9:29
I am wondering just in your research, as you look at other cities and other projects, where on a regional or national level, countries, regions or civil society organizations are doing interesting work related to food justice and other areas. I'm wondering, what are the areas that you draw inspiration from in terms of what's happening on the ground and other places that you think would be really interesting to look at, in a context like Vancouver or Toronto?
Tammara Soma 10:00
Well, actually, I will just say that I want to do a shoutout. The Vancouver Park Board is doing a lot of work trying to centre Indigenous voices in their upcoming update to the local food action plan. And I feel very fortunate to be a part of that project. And the City of Toronto is actually putting a lot of work and emphasis on Black and Indigenous food sovereignty. And so they've been working hard into tying that kind of lens, you know, that food justice lens in the work that they're doing. And so I'm really looking forward to the launch of their overall food strategy that will integrate Black and Indigenous voices. There's a lot of great work going on around the world. And I think the word justice is becoming... I think people are becoming more and more comfortable with that word. And I'm happy about that. Because I think that a lot of... In the past, at least I know, as a researcher, a lot of the solutions and the work interventions by policymakers have mostly been kind of Band Aid solutions that are not taking into account that systemic and structural history of oppression or injustice. But now things are starting to change. And I really feel very optimistic. And I'm very glad to be part of that work.
Am Johal 11:13
Yeah, that's a really great point. You know, there's always been that tension between charity, and justice within nonprofit civil society, work and it leads to tensions between organizations, and also kind of what upstream policy change can look like, which can actually affect a lot more people in a more just way. And it's really interesting debates that have been ongoing for decades. But it's great to see that some of the conversation debates in the food justice movement have been moving forward and have become far more mainstream in the past couple of decades. I'm wondering, around, these are some of the new terms that land down, they sometimes function in a civil society context or an academic context. But maybe for some of our listeners who might not know these terms, like the circular economy, or the repair economy, or repair infrastructures. These words get used. And I'm wondering if you can talk a little bit about what is meant by them? And what are the kind of interesting ideas that underpin some of these ideas?
Tammara Soma 12:16
That's a great question. And I don't want to take too long, but I also want to kind of highlight the nuances around the terms, because the term circular economy can be used just like the term sustainability and can be easily co-opted by any groups or any corporations or any, you know, individual interests that, you know, that would kind of actually take it away from perhaps like, what I think would be its true potential. And so a circular economy is basically an economy or a system that designs waste, you know, from that actual system, because it's basically the opposite of a take, make and dispose system, which we basically have for the most part now. But the thing is, the idea of a circular economy, I think it's not about just saying that, “Oh, there's a lot of extra bread. And so we take that bread, and then just kind of make it into like a crouton company,” or something like that. I mean, there's nothing wrong with taking like, you know, stale bread and turning it into crouton. Don't get me wrong. But I think the whole idea is really about prevention. The whole idea is about taking only what is enough. And I would like to say that circular economy, and this is not necessarily included, it's really the concept of enough, you know, what is enough for our society. Because the idea that—and I would be very critical of ideas of circular economy that's just based on like, “Oh, you just extract the most value out of that resource and create more companies and just sell more things and then just create more products that will require more packaging,” and it's like, No, no, no, no, no, no, now we have a whole, you know, a whole swath of other issues that we didn't originally have. And so I like to kind of pull it back a little bit and also urge people to think about scale when it comes to the circular economy. And then when it comes to repair economy and repair infrastructure, I come from Indonesia, a culture, you know, traditionally where we would have people like vendors coming, you know, in front of our house, and they would fix shoes, they would fix clothing. You know, you know, we come from a culture that is all about repairing and fixing, and I can see that the change has been very, very rapid in Indonesia, where you're losing those skills, you're losing those vendors and the people that would come around and fix your TV and fix your tools or whatever. Because now it's just cheaper to buy things new. And so I actually had a Mac, where I had an issue with my Mac, and I took it to the—I don't know if I'm gonna get in trouble for saying this—but I basically took it into the Mac store. And they said that it's cheaper to just buy a new one, because the cost of fixing it would be very expensive. And then I was just like, well, I don't really have money for that, I took it back home. And then my son was 13, who's like, very, very handy, he basically tampered around with it, and it started working again. And I was thinking to myself, like, oh, my goodness, you know, like, why can't we nourish and nurture and invest in those skills, so that we're not just increasingly mining more resources and more natural resources to create more laptops, you know, that we actually don't need. And so it's really about challenging this concept called planned obsolescence. Right, where things are actually made and designed to not function after you know, a certain period of time.
Am Johal 15:36
Oh, it's amazing. Such an interesting topic, when you look at the ways our waste is growing, particularly around computers and technology, and the longer term implications of this. Tammara, I'm wondering, in doing community-engaged research, obviously, we know, from talking to scholars in the field, this is a form of research that takes more time to do because of the amount of relationship-building time that's required to have that level of trust to be working with communities over a longer period of time. Oftentimes, communities that you're working with, the knowledge dissemination will have more impact if it's done working alongside communities in different formats that aren't the traditional peer-reviewed journal article. But the tension that emerges, of course, is that when you go through tenure, and promotion processes within faculties, we're still functioning in a system where certain things are valued around publishing, and research. And those aspects of materials that are produced through research that have an impact on community aren't necessarily looked at in the same way. And I'm wondering how you approach these challenges as a scholar who's, you know, gotten a doctoral scholar awards and SSHRC funding and those types of things—how you manage the additional time commitments and time investment that it takes to do these forms of engaged research?
Tammara Soma 17:05
That is such a great question Am, and I think… I will say, as a relatively junior scholar, you know, I graduated from my PhD in 2018. So I'm still traversing around the landscape of academia, I do you know, that in terms of mainstream academia, I know what really gets valued the most, and what really gets valued the most, for the most part—so what gets valued the most, for the most part—is basically publishing in high impact factor journals. And it's almost like well, if you get your work published in these extremely high impact journals, it's like a shoe-in that you would get that either reward or that tenure piece. And I feel that increasingly, particularly within the landscape that we are in right now, I think we really need to rethink this relationship with academia and the kind of style of doing work that's more kind of like a mill, right? Or a hamster wheel kind of thing where, when you work with community, time does not work that way. Relationship-building does not work that way. There's lots of ups and downs. It's not just a straight line from the point of conception to the point of article publication. And the kind of work that actually empowers community are not necessarily journal articles, the work that empowers community might be an art space project, might be photography, and that's something that we work on at the Food Systems Lab, you know, using photo voice is really leveraging and showcasing the beautiful photography work of citizen scientists and how they identify important food spaces. And the thing is, you know, for the most part, although maybe some universities are different, and there's just a lot of universities or academics that are not necessarily, you know, there's no checkbox for that, you know, for that kind of creative work, depending on your discipline. Again, you know, I'm talking about this from a non-arts based discipline. And so I think that it's really important to kind of factor that in, that community-engaged work takes longer. Community-engaged work takes a lot of skills that are soft skills that might not necessarily be considered in a regular or a typical tenure and promotion process. And so I think, you know, rewarding, acknowledging that skill, and also creating maybe some best practices or, templates and more awareness, for universities to value that work, I think would be very, very critical. And I think CERi, you know, your space is really to do all of that work, which I really appreciate. Because, in this time, we need research that matters. We need research that can impact communities in good ways and not research that's just going to be hidden behind a massively expensive paywall that is hard to read for community members. And for me, as a publicly-engaged scholar, you know, this type of work is what really drives me.
Am Johal 19:51
Thanks for that Tammara. I think it's such an important point that you're making, and even myself as an outsider to the university who, you know, worked as a community organizer, and did other things of being inside of a public institution, where, you know, I teach occasionally I do some writing, but I'm not a professor. And so my role is a little bit different and outward facing and trying to figure out where the important knowledge production and research that happens at a university, kind of a core function of what it is. How can it have a greater impact in the broader public? How can these ideas be disseminated in a way that they get out to the broader public, to policymakers to others? And there are some inherent tensions that are still left in the context of institutionalization that I think are really important to work through. I think of, for example, people like Hannah McGregor in publishing who is looking at scholarly means of peer review for podcasting. And so, you know, working with Wilfrid Laurier University Press, that there's maybe other ways and models of peer review that can be constructed, especially for community-engaged researchers that look at ways and include community participation in those forms of peer review, so that we can also go through important processes of examining the rigor of projects and those types of things. But I think having the community voice there is part and parcel, that particularly community-engaged research would be really interesting to look at, and even looking at, you know, ethics principles. Oftentimes, they're written from the perspective of the university. So the university doesn't get sued, and in some ways, looking at interesting projects in the community, ones that Hives for Humanity did in the Downtown Eastside and others that were involved in the Manifesto for Ethical Research in the Downtown Eastside. They're looking at ethics from a community perspective, and making it a conversation, where just the institutional point of view isn't the one that's valued, makes for a much more interesting, alive conversation.
Tammara Soma 21:50
Yeah, actually, I wanted to mention, Am, if you ever have the opportunity, I think it would be great for you to interview Dr. Max Liboiron from Memorial University of Newfoundland, you might you may know of them* already, they just recently launched their book called Pollution is Colonialism. But what I think is really inspiring from their work that I know of, is that the work that they do is actually vetted and peer reviewed by the community, by their community or by the community, where they’re doing the research, where the research is situated. And I think that's really important, because we know there's multiple, you know, records, historical records, and even even until now, of research that's done in a very exploitative way. Where community members are not fully aware to the extent, they don't have the same type of involvement or are just like, what things are not done in an ethical way. And I think even within the research ethics process, you know, a lot can be missed by just forms, but It's really the soul of the research, right? That's like how I like to look at things. It's just really what is that research intended to do, and that is accountability that is not just to the university, but it's actually accountability to your relations on the ground and to the people that you work with. And so, I think Dr. Max Liboiron has a lot of great insight and resources. And I've been quite inspired by their work.
Am Johal 23:09
I’m wondering if you can talk... I know you've got a SSHRC-funded project currently underway. I'm wondering if you can speak a little bit about that.
Tammara Soma 23:16
Yeah, I'm really excited about this project, I'm very grateful to SSHRC for the funding. So this is a SSHRC partnership development grant to work with partners from Public Health Association of BC, I'm also working with Dr. Lenore Newman, of the University of Fraser Valley, and also Dr. Navin Ramankutty, from the University of British Columbia, and what we're doing with this project is really to try to understand the potential of scaling up the Farm to School programming, or movement. And I think the reason why I'm so excited about this is because BC, you know, we have the Grow BC, Feed BC, Buy BC program, and, you know, BC is a very strong agricultural province. And I think that, you know, with my food loss and waste research, what we know is that farmers have lots of really great food and for various different reasons, have problems with connecting to the eaters, to the people that will eat their food, even here provincially, like locally. And so thinking about, well, how can we really increase the health, you know, healthy, nutritious food for the students, increase food literacy, ensure alternative markets and support for farmers in BC? And really creating that system that's based on just a shortened food supply chain. I'm really excited to be, you know, looking into this project and looking at the feasibility of scaling up this program. But most importantly, what I'm super, super excited about is that we're not just talking about just, you know, the regular horticultural products, but we're talking, also, about the Indigenous food sovereignty piece by thinking about Indigenous food providers. So for Indigenous children, particularly, how can we make sure that there's more connection with that Indigenous food. And so Farm to School is not just about just the typical traditional concept of farm that you might think about, but also thinking about Indigenous food landscape as well, particularly for Indigenous-focussed or dominant schools in the province.
Am Johal 25:16
Tammara, I'm wondering, with pandemic context, how were food systems challenged from the perspective of equity from your vantage point? I imagine there's lots of research going on underway and in the future. So there may not be some findings yet, but just wondering if you can share some thoughts on how the pandemic context challenged our existing food systems?
Tammara Soma 25:39
And so yes, and I think, you know, we always talk about how the COVID-19 pandemic, you know, kind of exacerbated the already underlying injustice and the underlying inequity. So it's really not a surprise. Particularly, when we did our study for the BC Poverty Reduction Coalition project on food access, we saw how low income community members who rely on and depend on access to some of these nonprofit food hubs, they had a lot of issues with accessing food, when many of these centres that provide food were shut down during the pandemic. I mean, you know, you talk about not having income to just go and choose to go to a supermarket, like many of us, or choose to get a delivery service to protect your health. I mean, people having to go out there and, and then, at the end, you know, these places that they rely on are closed. I mean, that's just harrowing. The fact that we've come to a point where we created that system, where this needs to happen. And then another thing also that I think is important is that you know, globally with SDG 2, to Sustainable Development Goal 2, the idea is that we you know, the hope is to get to zero hunger by 2030. And I think the pandemic just completely, you know, dashed that process. And so I really hope that we can start tackling problems and going to the root cause of it, instead of just doing a lot of different band aid solutions, because we know that we actually have the funds available if we started, and I would say this, I think this is really important for food work, is to really tax people that are wealthy and really properly tax them, so that we can actually start funding all of these important social services program. Because at the moment, you know, a lot of these things are just done through volunteers and charities and we can't rely on long term food security and resiliency with volunteers and just charity alone.
Am Johal 27:32
Tammara, thank you so much for joining us on Below the Radar and sharing some of your work and research. Really delighted that you're here at SFU doing such an interesting work and I look forward to collaborating with you some more in the future.
Tammara Soma 27:49
Thank you so much, Am, and thank you so much for inviting me to your podcast. Looking forward to seeing you again soon. Hopefully.
Am Johal 27:55
Yeah. Take care.
Alyha Bardi 27:58
Below the Radar is a knowledge democracy podcast created by SFU’s Vancity Office of Community Engagement. This has been our conversation with Tammara Soma. You can find out more about Tammara’s work in the show notes below. Thanks for listening, and we’ll see you next time on Below the Radar.