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 Jose-Benito Rosales Chavez, Assistant Professor at the School of Geographical Sciences & Urban Planning and Senior Global Futures Scientist.
1) How did you get interested in food systems issues?
It's personal for me. I grew up in Mexico and moved to the States when I was 14. From my experience growing up in Mexico, I’ve noticed that their food system is much more diverse than what we have here in the US. My family was low-income and during the last couple of years before we moved to the US, we had trouble getting food. Not because we didn't have access to food venues since there were plenty of them available: there were supermarkets, grocery stores, family owned stores, and a lot of healthy food available. We also had what we call farmers markets in the US - we call them tianguis in Mexico. We had street food vendors selling food that is culturally relevant, like tacos and other good stuff that is relatively healthy. But the problem for my family was that we didn't have enough income to buy that. We relied a lot on remittances. My step-dad would send us money from the US to Mexico. But times were hard. It got to a point where the money wasn't coming in. In addition to remittances, we used to sell products or items like construction tools at a local swap meet. These were items my step-dad would bring with him once a year when he came back to Mexico to visit us. However, there were times when we ran out of merchandise, so we didn't have much to sell and that limited how much money we had for food.
Those were the times we struggled with food access. I was 12 at the time. I didn't really know why we didn’t have food. There was food around us, but we just couldn't get that into our house to be able to eat it. Then things changed a little bit when the family decided to move to the US a couple years later. My mom had just had a new baby and now we were getting benefits through the government. We had WIC and SNAP benefits (they were called food stamps back then), so we had extra income. We still were considered a low-income family, but we had government supported benefits. Unlike in Mexico, we moved to an environment where we didn't have the diversity of food we had before. Now, the closest thing was an American supermarket, a convenience store and a gas station. Being new to the US, a lot of the food that the supermarket sold wasn't relevant to us. We didn't know how to cook some of the food. A lot of food was processed, so that was another challenge too. The supermarket ended up closing soon after we moved to the US. One of the arguments that the supermarket made was that they were not making enough money to remain open, so they shut down. Once the market closed down, we had to find a different grocery store. The closest Mexican or Latino grocery store was about a three or four mile walk. My stepdad had a car, but he used it to drive to work, leaving us without a vehicle. We had to walk to the store and then walk back with the cart full of items that we could buy through the benefits that we had.
Now it was the opposite situation from the one in Mexico: we had the resources and the money, but we didn't have a place nearby to buy food. Growing up I didn’t think so much about it. I just knew that was our reality. Then, as I progressed in my studies, I started learning about the definite social determinants of health, different social inequities and structural injustices affecting specific communities. Especially when you think about low-income communities that often don't have access to sources of food, whether because they're not readily available or because maybe they're too expensive or maybe they're too far. In some cases they're also not culturally relevant. People have access to certain items, but if they don't even know how to cook them, then they are not going to eat them. That started driving my interest in how some people have access to food, but others don't. Then on top of that, depending on what type of access or what type of food you have available, that can also determine your health outcomes. We frequently see that in local communities, often black and Latino communities - we have the highest rate of obesity, overweight, diabetes and some forms of cancer. Those conditions are linked to the type of foods that we are able to eat. These injustices drove my interest in doing research on food systems and health outcomes.
2) Share a glimpse of your current research and how it applies to food systems transformation.
One of the limitations that we have here in the US and in more globalized countries is that we tend to focus on what's traditional for a middle-income household such as supermarkets, grocery stores, and restaurants, but we often neglect things that are more culturally relevant for some other communities. I study street foods and I am interested in the role that they play in local communities. There are many different roles that they can play. First, they can help create access to food when there is none. If you think about supermarkets, they need a big space to be able to set up shop. They need the parking capacity because usually people rely on cars to get to them. If there's not a big open space or a big structure where they can set up and they don't have the parking space, they're not going to come. Often, supermarkets require a lot of investment from the local government. So what else can we do in spaces where supermarkets do not exist?
If you think about the informal economy, which is the label that is given to street food venues such as food stands or tianguis, they can be set up anywhere where there is open space. Parks, parking lots, alleys, and even some streets can be closed off to cars so that stands can be set up there for the day. We have cases in other countries, low- and middle-income countries, where street foods are an important element of the food environment for people. If you think about people who work far from home, they may not have access to food cooked at home or to affordable restaurants to eat during the day. Street food stands are places where workers can walk to and buy something that is nutritious and good. However, most studies on street food focus on food contamination and hygiene. I would like to highlight the important role that these more informal food venues or nontraditional food venues can play in an urban context. What is their role in food access, and in economic and community development.
If you think about sustainability as well, some of these vendors may be sourcing their products locally because some of them may not have access to these bigger kinds of networks where usually supermarkets or grocery stores get their products from. Instead, they might be relying on local producers to get lettuce, tomatoes, onions, or whatever it is that they need to cook their meals. Street foods can help us link local food production to local food consumption.
3) What’s an innovation in the food systems world that you’re excited about?
In many places, decision makers are just realizing that there's a need for policies that can facilitate local entrepreneurship like street food vending. Policies can help formalize and regulate street food vending and that can be a source of food and income security for the community. We can also think about the social impact of street vending. Some people suggest that if you have a corridor of street food vendors at any time of the day, especially at nighttime, vendors and their customers can help keep eyes on the street. People will feel more welcome and safe when there's more activity happening. If you don't have that busy activity, the street might be lonely and dark, and people may not feel safe walking around. This type of innovation through more open street vending is something that many cities in the US are now trying to facilitate. The city of LA recently legalized street food vending in most areas of the city. Previously, street food vending was an illegal activity. Vendors who were caught selling food would often get costly tickets and their merchandise confiscated. When their carts were confiscated they had to start all over. Sometimes vendors were also harassed by community members who were not welcoming towards this type of entrepreneur opportunity. Facilitating street vending has changed some of that negative environment.
That's something that I'm excited about: to help change policies and community perceptions throughout the US so that street food vending can be incorporated in the fabric of urban settings. We often have a mentality of linear development. Okay, well, if you're selling something on the street, your ultimate goal is to have a brick and mortar supermarket or restaurant. And often that's not the case, but city planning policies have been put in place to facilitate certain types of businesses. People want the flexibility to be able to move around if they're in a food truck or be on the streets in an open environment. Our local policies usually don't facilitate that. Something that you see in other countries is that street food vendors represent more than just access to food. They create a social atmosphere where people come and stand next to each other and are able to chat. If they're in a plaza or in a park, people are able to buy food and then go and sit down and watch the kids play and interact with each other. We often don't see that here. When you go to a restaurant, you pretty much have to sit in and keep your conversation within the group. With street food vendors, that's different. It's more like a community based kind of activity.
4) What’s your favorite weeknight meal?
I like cooking, and before I became a professor, I used to cook every night. Now not so much. So now we have to focus on things that are fast. Especially with three kids. It's hard to prepare a complex meal. Something that is usually simple that my kids are always excited to eat is just burritos: bean, cheese and chorizo burritos that are super quick to make. If you fry them a little bit, then they get crunchy. The beans are a good source of many nutrients. The cheese has protein, and the chorizo gives it a good spicy flavor. That's the main thing we like to eat when we don't have time to cook anything more complex. We make them in batches, and have them frozen and ready to go whenever we want to eat them.