In this series, we’re sitting down with the Swette Center affiliated faculty to catch up on food systems, innovation, and what makes a good meal. See the rest of the series on our Food Systems Profiles page.
Read on for an interview with Sara Meerow, Assistant Professor in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning.
How did you get interested in food systems issues?
As a social scientist, I study and care about people, and people need to eat to live. So there is an obvious connection there. My work is also focused on environmental sustainability, and food systems have a huge impact on the environment. There are also important equity considerations around food systems. We need to provide everyone living today, as well as future generations, with high quality, healthy food without destroying the planet. So my interest in food systems comes from within my broader interests in people and sustainability.
Share a glimpse of your current research and how it applies to food systems transformation.
My research is broadly focused on how we can make our cities resilient, sustainable, and just. Our current food systems, especially in cities, are none of those things. We really need to make sure that cities have secure supplies of healthy food that is accessible to all citizens. The process of bringing that food to urban residents also needs to be environmentally sustainable. My research is related to food systems because the sustainability and resiliency of food is incredibly important for broader urban sustainability and resiliency. I’ve also done work specifically on urban agriculture as one potential strategy to enhance sustainability of cities and provide social justice benefits. Within that, I’ve been working on strategically planning urban agriculture. A lot of cities want to gain the benefits of urban agriculture, but no one is strategically planning where to prioritize it in order to maximize the benefits. I collaborated on a study led by a former PhD student, Jordan Smith, last year that identified priority locations for urban agriculture across Metro Phoenix. We looked at all the vacant land that could be used, and then layered on other criteria to narrow down the best places to maximize desired benefits.
What’s an innovation in the food systems world that you’re excited about?
Multi-functional urban agriculture that is seen as a form of green infrastructure is what excites me the most. The growing interest in expanding urban agriculture is exciting because it can potentially provide a variety of different benefits to cities. I don’t necessarily think that urban agriculture is going to replace conventional agriculture any time soon, but it provides an opportunity to supplement cities' food supplies while also bringing environmental and social benefits. There is a lot of work suggesting that urban agriculture helps to foster community connections, maybe address food deserts, less attention has been given to other potential benefits, like helping to mitigate the urban heat island. I think there is a lot of potential to think of urban agriculture as a form of green infrastructure, which is another strategy that a lot of cities are trying to implement to enhance resilience. People don’t often consider edible plants when thinking about green infrastructure, but there is no reason that urban agriculture can’t provide many of the ecosystem services that people are interested in gaining from green infrastructure. There is especially a lot of potential for this in places where water or land is limited. For example, you could have areas where you capture rainwater and then use it to irrigate urban gardens or farms. And vegetation is the most commonly implemented strategy for cooling cities, but those conversations tend to be separate from discussions around urban agriculture. I’m excited for the opportunity to try to integrate these conversations better.
What’s your go-to weeknight meal?
I love pasta. The meal that’s always been my go-to quick dinner is pasta with pesto, spinach, and tomatoes. Right now I use tomatoes from my backyard garden.