GSE professor’s research on school food politics resonates during pandemic’s food crisis – UB Now: News and views for UB faculty and staff
After the COVID-19 pandemic closed local schools last spring, UB faculty member Sarah A. Robert joined Seeding Resilience, a new Buffalo coalition of government representatives, community members and nonprofits connected to the food system and its supply chain.
The group’s mission to address food inequity and improve distribution and communication aligns with Robert’s research about school food policy and how it impacts local resources and practices. As a policy analyst and specialist in school food politics, Robert works to improve public understanding of the critical role schools play in distributing food to students and families.
The importance of creating more awareness was highlighted for her after Buffalo school buildings first closed last March: Buffalo Public Schools estimated that less than half of the 29,000 students who relied on school breakfasts and lunches were getting help at the beginning of the pandemic.
“Food, and how schools fill the need for food, are now more crucial than ever,” says Robert, associate professor of learning and instruction, and director of GSE’s Social Studies Education Programs. “This is an issue of human rights.”
Seeding Resilience members have been meeting regularly on Zoom during the past year. They include Samina Raja, director of UB’s Food Lab, associate dean and a professor in the School of Architecture and Planning, and participants from a broad range of backgrounds — farmers and activists, food-market workers and graduate students, wholesale grocers and chefs, and representatives from schools and the Buffalo mayor’s office.
Together they have been working to get food to those in need, increase local food production and support farms, foster community and personal gardens, and create jobs in farming and food production. Their projects have ranged from the development of a map of grocery distribution points to food resource brochures that Robert translated into Spanish.
Robert wants to continue to find ways to increase public awareness about the food system and how to support it. The pandemic has led more people to recognize how much families depend on schools for food, she says. For example, the COVID-19 crisis underscored the limited funding of school food programs, which have been under attack. As a result, Robert says, the variety and quality of meals served has declined as school districts centralize kitchens, cooks and cafeteria workers lose their jobs, and the food costs for families and students rise.
As an education policy researcher, Robert looks at how practices like these impact schools around the world. Programs and policies in the midst of change are the subject of her upcoming and fourth book, tentatively titled “Transforming School Food Politics Around the World,” which she is co-editing with Jennifer E. Gaddis, assistant professor of civil society and community studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
The new work, expected to be published later this year, is a follow-up to Robert’s 2011 book, “School Food Politics: The Complex Ecology of Hunger and Feeding in Schools Around the World,” which she edited with Marcus B. Weaver-Hightower. Winner of the 2012 American Educational Studies Association Critics’ Choice Award, the book featured international case studies about school policy and practices. It was one of the first to concentrate on questions related to how educational institutions feed children.
The pandemic-era challenges of addressing hunger in the community reveal the importance of coalitions like Seeding Resilience and policy research like hers, Robert says. She would like to see school food services upgraded and funding increased to improve health, employment and the environment.
Schools, traditionally defined as centers of education, are also a key part of the food system. “Schools are food hubs,” she says. “Let’s reprioritize how we spend tax dollars to reflect our societal values.”
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