Meet Swette Center staff member, Sharla Strong

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 Sharla Strong, Special Projects Coordinator, enrolled tribal member with the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians. 

When did you first get interested in food systems work?

Back in 2009, I had been living in New York City for about 5 years and I was working at MSNBC in longform news. Obama had just been elected President and the financial crisis was starting to hit hard. There were hiring freezes and work contracts were not being renewed for most staff, so I was trying to decide what I wanted to do next. I had been working in media, documentary and theater behind-the-scenes work and I was missing nature and my family. I am Native American and enrolled in the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians in Oregon, and I was wondering what my tribe had available for work because I have always wanted to give back to my community. On the website, they had a job description for a new program called Healthy Traditions. They needed someone to run a grant to start a traditional foods program. I was immediately interested in what that position could bring to the community and interested in learning more about Indigenous foods. That's how I first got involved in food systems. It wasn't until I started working on this program that was more focused on culture that I actually got more interested in foods. Working in that program was incredible. Healthy Traditions was focused on gathering, hunting, fishing, and those kinds of activities, but we also had a community garden and focused on local foods. I did a lot of different cooking classes, gathering trips, and other activities. I just fell head-over-heels in love with traditional foods. That became my life for about 5 years. In the years after that, I built a program that was very successful and loved by the community. It also goes to show that the community cares about traditional foods. It was not just that I was doing a good job, but also how important traditional foods are to tribal communities. Working for my tribe was very fulfilling and it meant a lot to me to be able to give back to my tribe. Now that program Healthy Traditions is being run by my mom. I also started working with tribal youth and was able to incorporate youth leadership opportunities for youth to learn about our traditional foods. Also, it is important to our culture for youth to learn how to take care of some of the different places where animals and plants naturally occur. To continue our culture takes a lot of work and dedication, so to see other youth become interested in traditional foods is very inspiring to me and I have continued to volunteer on a regular basis since leaving Oregon a few years ago. 

What are you working on currently? 

I have worked for the Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems as the Special Projects Coordinator since 2019. I do a lot of behind-the scenes work to support some of our educational classes, such as the Arizona Farm and Food tour that we recently completed, where students traveled around Arizona to learn about different aspects of our food system from the people who produce our food. I also do a lot of work that supports research projects and events. For example, the Swette Center is going to be co-hosting an Arizona Food Summit with the Arizona Department of Agriculture in March 2022. The other thing that I'm working on right now is broadening my network within tribal communities locally in Arizona. There is incredible work happening in tribal communities and with tribal members passionate about building food sovereignty for their communities. I see my role as a supporter and would love to assist with bringing more recognition and resources to tribal communities. There are incredible leaders doing incredible work all across the state and I want to support what they are doing. That's something that's important to me.

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

In terms of things I think are important, I like the total cost accounting concept that the Swette Center has been working on. I think that there are a lot of costs to our food systems that we're not aware of. One of the things that I think should be a top priority is actual labor within the food system. One of the things that I think a lot of people don't really think about when it comes to our food system is that in America, and in different parts of the world, our food system for hundreds of years was based on slavery. Our American food economy has been skewed because we have never had to pay the actual cost for food. This history still impacts how much people who work in our food system today are paid. We see a small bit of a difference now that farmers are becoming a little bit more of a “cool” kind of job to have and local foods have become popular. There are also strong cultural values where some people are raised in families that encourage becoming, for example,  fishermen, ranchers, or dairymen. There are certain types of food culture where that's a part of your identity or heritage. There are people who have continued to be in the food system and have a lot of pride in that, but I think there are a lot of people who feel differently about food jobs. Our food industry requires people to harvest, process, cook, preserve and clean. These jobs are hard labor and are just as important as the people who do advertising for the food. However, many food-related jobs pay extremely low wages and I think that's a problem. I think that if you are a dishwasher, if you're washing dishes for 8:00 hours a day, that is a hard job and I think you should be paid well. If you are somebody who is working in a food processing facility you should be paid well because those are hard jobs. It's not glamorous but it's not easy either. I think labor is something that is important for our food system to become more equitable. I am not an expert on food systems, but predict that food system labor is going to continue to be an important issue into the future. 

Any advice for current food systems students?

Food systems refer to a very broad range of topics.  I think it is important to understand the broad concepts of systems and how they interact. It can get very overwhelming to realize how many factors influence our food systems. I think it's good to focus on what draws people in or makes people invested in this work. For me working in indigenous foods, I have a very specific area that I want to focus on. Then there are all of these external factors impacting that very specific goal that I have for my tribal community. A student might have one specific goal or area of food systems interest, but it is important to know about all these other things, because it all connects. There is a real value to learning about some of these other aspects of our food system. It is important for you to identify what issues in the food system you are passionate about so that you have that grounding focus, but keep your mind open because you never know how it will lead to other things. 

What is your favorite food to make? 

My favorite dish right now is Delicata squash. I scrape out the seeds and I save them. I bake the seeds off to make them nice and crunchy with Maldon salt with olive oil. Then I will take the squash and I'll cook them upside down in a pan with water until they're soft. Which is usually like 30-45 minutes. Then I flip them over and I put olive oil, salt, pepper, garlic salt, paprika, chili powder, cumin, and then I take goat cheese (I use an herb goat cheese) and crumble that into the kind of cavity of the squash. Then I'll bake that for a little bit, just to soften the goat cheese. Then I'll broil it for a few minutes to get that nice browning on top. That dish is inspired by this amazing squash that I had at FnB which is in old town Scottsdale.