Meet Swette Center staff member, Gina Nichols

In this series, we’re meeting with Swette Center team members to explore their background in food systems, what they are currently working on, and their vision of food systems transformation. 

Read on for an interview with Gina Nichols, Assistant Research Professor. 

When did you first get interested in food systems work?

My background is in farming and crop science. During my graduate degree I saw a talk by Dr. Ricardo Salvador, who is now, coincidentally, one of the Swette Center fellows. In his talk, he said someone once asked him (speaking in regard to our food systems): “Is the problem that we don’t know what to do, or is it that we know what to do but we aren’t doing it?”

Ricardo gave an eloquent answer that was up to interpretation (as he can be relied upon to do), but as a student studying the science of sustainable agriculture I realized what I personally thought the answer was: we basically know what we should be doing, but we aren’t doing it. In that moment I shifted to believing that no amount of scientific evidence was going to shift how and what we grow and eat – we have to change the policy meat grinder that is churning out our food system. Ricardo’s speech is, very likely, the reason I’m at the Swette Center. 

What are you working on currently? 

Students in the Certificate and MS program in Sustainable Food Systems take a class on managing natural resources during their first semester. I’m a data fanatic, and I’m working to build out the data component of the class, in hopes our students will be comfortable accessing the rich data resources that are publicly available, and to analyze and communicate that data in a persuasive way. Telling stories about the food system based on data is a very powerful tactic!

What do you think is a priority in transforming food systems?

When it comes to the necessities of life like food, water, and nature, I don’t think a capitalist model that worships profit and economic growth is appropriate. I am excited by alternative business structures like Benefit Corporations because I hope they are an avenue for codifying prioritization of other capitals (social, cultural, natural, etc.)

Any advice for current food systems students?

This advice is stolen from Kathleen Merrigan, but I think it bears repeating: talk to the people your work affects. More specifically, listen to them. 

What is your favorite food to make? 

I love demystifying intimidating food and empowering myself to make it. For example, corn tortillas – so easy! It’s just corn flour, maybe some wheat flour, water, salt, and a hot cast iron. I will also never buy English muffins again. I like the Serious Eats recipe:

Jane Goghlan