Meet affiliated faculty Steven Zuiker

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 Steven Zuiker, Senior Global Futures Scholar and Associate Professor at the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College. 

1) How did you get interested in food systems issues? 

While I grew up next door to a farm and always enjoyed fresh summer vegetables from my family’s small garden, it was teaching at a boarding school that involved students in growing corn and peanuts for their cafeteria meals that sparked my interest in food systems. Witnessing a modest local food system hidden in plain sight was a new frontier of personal ignorance!

2) Share a glimpse of your current research and how it applies to food systems transformation. 

My research involves partnerships with schools that inspire and enable gardening on campuses. My work explores how gardens can organize a system of learning and teaching that challenges students to think and act with soil and seeds. A school garden is, at once, a laboratory for low-cost experiments, a studio for culinary and cultural expression, and a workshop for novel designs. To grow vegetables, students must recruit science, math, and language arts in uncommon ways. Rather than using what they learn to pass a test, they enlist it to create value and build a direct relationship with a food system. Gardening on campus invites students to discover simple food systems that connect these experiences to their roles and choices in local and larger food systems.  

3) What’s an innovation in the food systems world that you’re excited about?

I’m excited about agrivoltaics, which is a strategy to cultivate crops and produce power on the same plot of land. It’s an interesting innovation because it navigates the nexus of food, energy, and water in synergistic ways. Plants help cool solar panels, which improves their performance; meanwhile,  panels shade plants, which reduces the amount of water they require. Agrivoltaics can flourish in the Sonoran Desert. In fact, the National Science Foundation has funded my ASU and U of A collaborators and me to involve schools in agrivoltaics citizen science research. Participating schools create agrivoltaics gardens on campus. Each garden is a local laboratory in which students test strategies for optimizing agrivoltaics for both local food and energy systems. 

4) What’s your favorite weeknight meal?

Any number of variations on rice and beans is a weeknight favorite of mine. It’s a simple and enduringly delicious combination with unlimited possibility.