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 Jan Stanley, Affiliate Global Futures Scholar, Executive Coordinator in the Office of the Senior Vice President and Secretary of the University, and Contributing Editor for the ASU Alumni Association.
1) How did you get interested in food systems issues?
I grew up in a small agricultural community in eastern Kansas, so food production influenced everything. Bad years were bad for everyone. My dad was a doctor, and there were years when doctor bills were paid by some patients in bushels of corn or a quarter of beef. It was just life. My mother had a garden, as did a lot of our friends, so there was a lot of food exchange. Some families used backyard gardening or raising chickens to augment their income. Mother would send us to them for eggs, or whatever it was they had. My mother would put us outside in the morning and tell us to go be children, and we'd come back when we were hungry. Growing up this way was a big influence that fostered my interest in food systems and rural environments.
My undergraduate degree is from a women's university in Virginia in a rural setting that allowed further development of my interest in rural environments and cultures. Later, I worked in Department of Defence schools in Germany for a few years. The children in my class would go out for special classes like music or art. From some, they came back happy and had no problems for the rest of the day. From other classes, they just would fall apart. It would take them the rest of the day to focus on what we were doing. I was curious about what was happening because I knew the teachers; they were good people. So, what in the environment is really influencing these children and who they are and resulting in this thing? One thing led to another, and I became interested in human affinity with natural place and how people and place go together.
From this interest in people and place, a series of events led me to Iceland, which is a great place to watch how people and place co-evolve. One of the more remote but reasonably easily accessible regions of Iceland at the time that I started going there was the Westfjords. Every place is pretty easy to get to now. There's a University Center in Ísafjörður in the northern Westfjords where I took a language and culture class. I started to meet people and ended up doing ethnographic research with three primary participants, which turned into a whole town's worth of people because Ísafjörður is so small. Everybody eventually learns what everyone else is doing. Among my primary participants were a fish exporter and a sheep farmer for several weeks out of every year, the sheep farmer may be isolated in a remote peninsular valley. She plans for this possibility and does just fine.
Historically, Iceland has always been able to feed itself, except in the very worst years. Food and food preservation was a central consideration from the time of settlement, but as Iceland transitioned to the modern European nation that it is now, this became less critical. However, the old food traditions are still celebrated as a way of honoring and continuing the nation's heritage. Today, traditional foods and their production are of interest to tourists and are used also to promote tourism, which is important to Iceland's economic security. Food now plays a new role for the country. In addition, international attention to the resources made available by warming and thus opening the Arctic has implications for Icelandic fishing and moves Iceland more onto the global stage. As a result, my research evolved to include a more global focus.
At the same time I was watching all of this happening, I was also seeing the small-scale farmers in Iceland give up farming and move to town in order to support families and access services. Small fishing operations were doing the same. I watched this happen to farmers in Kansas as I was growing up, and it continues across the country and around the world today. The losses are felt in cultures and communities in addition to quality food production and in an increasing connection to nature and the planet. I started with a sustainability question: what is human affinity with natural place, and how does it develop? These questions weave together with food production, human development and culture, and my history, and that's how I got where I am.
2) Share a glimpse of your current research and how it applies to food systems transformation.
My research continues to grow because it involves politics and economics. It's become global in focus because we're seeing what's happening with food production all over the world and also with issues related to climate change and other sustainability challenges. How do we sustain human relationships, and how do we sustain relationships between people and place when we can't feed ourselves and we don't know that water will be available? What I'm doing now is collecting all of these numerous strands of information from Iceland, including what I've already written up, into collective and coherent written work. My sheep farmer has worked alongside me since 2013 and will be a co-author.
3) What's an innovation in the food systems world that you're excited about?
That's really hard because what I've been doing doesn't fall into the category of innovation, but I'm excited about all of these efforts now to bring the small places together and to connect people to their local communities. Eat from your local farm stand, that sort of thing. I think that while it's as old as the hills, it's kind of a new concept on the scene today as something that's accessible and acceptable. It's become almost a fad to go to the farmer's market, and this is not the core of what it means to support local. That's where I am hoping to move if I ever finish writing up my research. We lose so much when we lose our small farms; we lose a way of life that is much more durable than what we're living now.
4) What's your favorite weeknight meal?
I usually start with leftovers and whatever's in my garden that's ready or in my neighbor's garden, depending on who has what. Sometimes meat is involved in my meals, sometimes not. I often make stuffed squash or peppers or something with quinoa and whatever else I have. It could be stir fry; it's not one of my favorites though. It just kind of depends on whatever is fast to cook and fast to clean up. If I can do it all in one pan, that's great. Some nights, I'll just make a salad.