Sustainability Spotlight: Meredith Glaubach, Food Justice Activist

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We met with Meredith Glaubach (Jones ‘17) to discuss food justice, GMOs, and Pope Francis, amongst other topics. Meredith serves as the EcoRep for Jones College, is an officer in the Rice student club Real Food Revolution, and is a founder and co-President of Rice’s Queer Resource Center.

Where are you from and what degrees are you pursuing at Rice?
Meredith Glaubach: I grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina, and I am currently majoring in the Study of Women, Gender, and Sexuality (SWGS) and minoring in Environmental Studies.

Since coming to Rice, you have focused your work on a topic known as food justice. What does food justice mean?
MG: Food justice is a field dedicated to addressing oppression in every facet of the food chain. This includes food security (making sure that everyone has access to healthy food), but it also includes agricultural workers rights, supporting land and seed sovereignty (making sure marginalized groups have access to their land and that corporations don’t endanger their use of indigenous seed), treatment of livestock, environmental degradation from agriculture, and so much more.

Let’s pull the term food justice apart into its two components. First, how did you develop an academic interest in food?
MG: At some point my sophomore year, I decided that my two main interests were feminism and environmentalism. So I dug around environmental justice for a while and realized that I was just really drawn to food, and thus food justice. But, I honestly don’t think the food part was ever super academic — it’s just been a love of mine for a while, and, at some point, I realized I could do it academically and potentially as a career.

And how about justice?
MG: This I’ve been interested in for quite some time. I became interested in the feminist community and feminist studies in high school, and this passion has grown into a major and career path. In college, this interest has manifested into me volunteering with the Women’s Resource Center every semester for four years now, and being part of the group that started the Queer Resource Center, of which I am now co-president.

Was there a particular class or experience that served as the catalyst for your interest in food justice?
MG: My junior year I had the privilege and pleasure of taking Carly Thomsen’s Feminist and Queer Foods class (SWGS 308), and to say it changed my life wouldn’t be terribly dramatic. I went into the class knowing I was interested in going into food justice as a career, but I learned such new and complicated ways of thinking about food. I learned to center disability in my food discourse, because so much of the contemporary food discussion centers “health” while simultaneously erasing those for whom health has never been an option. I stopped using “authentic” as a word with any real or useful intrinsic meaning, and I now realize how many alternative food movements there are other than those who beg us to vote with our dollar. I also started a project, where a classmate, Karina Farias, and I worked with Housing & Dining (H&D) and the Sustainability Office to get "Local Food" labels in the servery. We felt that it was integral for Rice students to start thinking about the backstory of their food, and thinking about where it comes from is a great first step. We also made a "zine" — a short homemade magazine — about queer and feminist food at Rice, which you can always ask me for or get a copy at the Queer Resource Center in the basement of the RMC.

So, would you describe food justice as a social movement, and, if so, can you give us a sense of the communities and interests that help comprise this movement?
MG: Oh, this is such a hard question. I would say that there are major trends in food justice work, and there are networks and resources, but I really wouldn’t call it a movement. For me, movement implies cohesion and large scale community, which I really don’t think food justice on its own has. However, I think there are a lot of pseudo-social movements under food justice which are really interesting. I think there is a lot of momentum around farmers markets and local sourcing (though most people still get a remarkably small amount from these sources), a lot of momentum for organic and non-GMO food (though predominantly these products are too expensive for the average customer), and momentum around food security (so, not only food banks, but also gardening education in schools and urban farms).

This past semester, I was in India, and I would say that there is a more concrete food movement there. Dr. Vandana Shiva is leading a movement there for seed sovereignty to allow Indian farmers the ability to grow indigenous seeds organically as they have for the past thousands of years. Farming is being corporatized in India, just as it has been in the U.S., not surprisingly, by the U.S. (a type of food imperialism), but farmers in India oftentimes aren’t economically equipped to buy into this cycle. So, there is a more united movement there around food and seed sovereignty, but I think the food justice issues in the U.S. are too spread out for there to be any one dominant food movement here.

You are a key player in the food movement here at Rice through your work with the student organization Real Food Revolution. What is Real Food Revolution all about?
MG: Real Food Revolution is a student-run club on campus dedicated to supporting local, sustainable food on Rice’s campus. Every semester, we host a Farm to Fork dinner featuring locally-sourced food cooked by a Rice chef with presentations and conversations about our local food system. This semester, we also participated in Project Pumpkin and let kids plant basil seeds and take them home. A lot of our work involves building community around food justice and educating the Rice community about local sustainable food.

Real Food Revolution just hosted its tenth Farm to Fork dinner. What did that entail, and how did it go?
MG: We were so proud of the Farm to Fork dinner this semester. Chef Kyle, the Seibel head chef, offered to cook for us and made us a delicious three-course meal. Some of the highlights included homemade cranberry walnut bread, pear kombucha shrubs (a non-alcoholic palate cleansing shot), potato squash cakes, and chocolate cake with caramelized beets on top. We had a quick presentation about current and future projects by Rice Urban Agriculture, a club formed by Andy Miller (‘16), a former member of Real Food Revolution who decided he wanted to be involved with the actual growing process. And, to finish it off, we had a raffle for goodies from the Rice University Farmers Market. The cherry on top was that we had the biggest attendance we’ve ever had! 100-plus people came and ate with us. If you enjoyed this Farm to Fork or are interested in going next time, we’ll have another around mid-April next semester.

Beyond Real Food Revolution, you’ve worked with several organizations in the Houston area that are part of Houston’s food justice movement. Tell us about your experiences.
MG: This past summer I worked for Urban Harvest, which is a pretty well-established food justice organization in Houston that teaches children about gardening in low-socioeconomic status schools, teaches adult classes, helps urban farms throughout Houston, and has a farmers market. It really solidified my interest in this work. I worked at their Farmer’s Market every Saturday, which was an incredibly rewarding process, and got to spend a few hours in one of their public school gardens every week in addition to doing program evaluation work back in the office.

This year for my SWGS capstone (which we call practicum and seminar), I’m working with a local urban farm, Last Organic Outpost, to help them improve their connection to local female African immigrants. This is a community they really want to serve better, and so I’m helping them by interviewing African immigrant women who have worked at Last Organic Outpost about their experiences and perspective and how they think Last Organic Outpost could serve them better.

Based on what you’ve learned about food systems at Rice and in Houston, if you could wave a magic wand and make a change in Rice’s food system, what would it be and why?
MG: I wish there was more transparency in the Rice food system. I didn’t know that 30% of our produce is locally-sourced until last year, and I still have some questions about what exactly that means, so I wish that was talked about more openly. A criticism from H&D about buying more local food is that people won’t eat it because it may not be as pretty (for example local oranges are often smaller and less vibrant), which I think could be really easily combatted by more transparency and a tiny bit of education.

Oh gosh, there’s so much you could do to change Houston’s food system. My dream would be to turn all the unused land into sustainable urban farms, give a ton of people jobs and living wages by working on the farms, make the farms cooperatives so the workers own them and have full control over them, and then sell this food to Houstonians on a formalized pay-what-you-can system. That’d be a lot of magic wand waving, but that is the dream.

You also had an opportunity to work with North Carolina Public Interest Research Group (a branch of USPIRG) on the topic of Genetically Modified (GMO) foods. This is, of course, a hot-button issue right now. Based on your research and experience, what is your position on GMO foods and GMO labeling?
MG: Honestly, talking about this issue at Rice often makes me uncomfortable, because people here are so blindly pro-science that they forget that science never happens in a vacuum and that it always affects living, breathing people. So much of the conversation around GMOs is whether they’re good for you or not, and most of the science shows that there are no negative effects to the health of humans, but this is not necessarily the case for the environment. Current GMO crops are very intentionally single cycle, so that farmers have to come back to the company to buy more seeds every year, and they have been designed so only the company’s herbicide doesn’t kill the actual crop, which makes it a never-ending hell for many small- or medium-sized [farm owners]. Oh god, I could go on for a long time about the impacts of GMOs. I just think it’s really irresponsible to talk about GMOs without talking about their social effects. I think labeling does very little to combat this deeply systematic problem, so I wouldn’t advocate for it.

As long as we’re discussing controversial topics, you wrote a fascinating essay that recently appeared in "Cosmologics", a magazine about science, religion, and culture published by Harvard Divinity School. In your essay, you imagined the opportunity to sit at a coffee shop with Pope Francis to discuss the relationship between humans and nature. Where did you expect to share common ground, where did you expect to encounter disagreement, and what did you expect each of you to learn from that conversation?
MG: That was such a fun essay to write, but it feels like I wrote it lifetimes ago! I based the essay on the encyclical that the Pope had recently published about the environment, and, in it, he really strongly advocated for environmental protection and a form of environmental justice. So, we both really strongly believe in respecting and honoring the Earth, and the Pope even said that the environmental and social crises were actually part of one complex overarching crisis, which I fully believe in. At its base, we would definitely disagree on the cause; he would say greed and materialism and a lack of empathy, I would say industrialized capitalism and imperialism. But, I think we would learn from one another the ways in which we can go about changing this current crisis and new ways to conceptualize nature in our modern world.

Final question: Now that you’re in your senior year, what are your plans following graduation?
MG: I’m currently applying to food-related yearlong fellowships. I’ll be looking at different Americorp fellowships, as well as the Foodcorp (which is food and gardening education in low-SES public schools) and the Emerson Fellowship, which is five months in a community-based organization and six months in [Washington, D.C.] doing policy work.