Meet Swette Center staff member, Sara El-Sayed

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 Sara El-Sayed, Co-Director of the Biomimicry Center and Assistant Research Professor at the Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems. 

When did you first get interested in food systems work?

I got interested in food systems work in 2011 when the revolution started in Egypt, and people protested in the streets to change the status quo. Eventually, we overthrew the government, and a significant interest in civil society came in and made the changes we wanted to see. A group of friends and I basically said Egypt is one of the oldest agricultural civilizations in the world, and the direction we’re going is not good. It’s very industrialized, and we’ve lost many traditional practices. So, we set up an organization called Nawaya that started supporting small-scale farmers to take their land and practices back. Nawaya, in Arabic, means date seed or nucleus but is also associated with good intentions. I am still on Nawaya’s board, and it’s still going strong. We have hundreds of farmers working with us today, and we’ve supported hundreds of women and families, in particular, to valorize their traditional practices. When we take students on the study abroad to Egypt, they go and visit that project. 

What are you working on currently? 

Currently, I’m doing several things. I’m planning the Arizona Food and Farm Immersive for our graduate students in December. I’m trying to figure out where it makes sense to visit in the state of Arizona, which is a lot of fun for me because back in Egypt, I was doing a lot of these kinds of tours with people, so this allows me to see things here. I’m also involved with the Transition to Organic Partnership Program (TOPP). My specific role is looking more at the outreach and how we can involve more BIPOC indigenous communities to be a part of this. It’s a challenge because organic in and of itself is already difficult for underrepresented and underserved groups in general, but it’s even more difficult when you’re thinking about organic. So, part of the work is not necessarily getting the numbers of Indigenous and BIPOC people on but understanding their needs.

The big project I’m working on, and have been for the past few years, has been trying to shake up the space of food insecurity on college campuses. I’m involved in different projects in this space. I’ve been working with capstone students who have been exploring food insecurity at the college level to get a baseline and to try to understand what the numbers are. They’re not looking good, and even though ASU still ranks lower than other universities in Arizona, 26% of students at ASU face food insecurity, and 27% of students in the College of Global Futures deal with it. Our sample for this study was not huge, and I think that if we could get a huge sample, the numbers would be even more shocking because the people struggling with food, housing, or other financial things probably don’t have time to complete a survey. The magnitude of food insecurity at ASU is a major concern for me. I want to solve localized issues before moving beyond that, so this is really close to my heart. I am writing grants to get funds to try and tackle this issue. One of the grants I hope to get involves trying to create an ecosystem between different universities across the U.S. that collaborate on solutions for food insecurity by building food agency, with the premise that providing introductory cooking classes can act as a platform for other things. So, the cooking class is just one piece: learning how to shop frugally while getting the highest nutrition and knowing how to make delicious foods. So there’s that part of it, but a big part of it is building that network of really understanding that you might throughout your life find yourself in moments where you do need a food bank, you do need those resources, and it’s not a bad thing to do that. These resources are there, and they’re there to get you by and move you to the next thing, but you need to make the best decision for you and your family. The idea behind it is to understand that this kind of thing can happen to all sorts of people, including super-successful people, and it’s not something to be ashamed of. So, the idea behind it is to create an environment where it becomes normal for us to use these resources, ask for help, and create a network.    

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

When thinking about systems, you can’t just think of one part to intervene; you must intervene in diverse ways. You can think of it as an iceberg, where most of it is submerged and can't be seen; this includes our mental models and paradigms. The biggest leverage in changing a system is, therefore, to change the paradigm. And so, one of the most significant pieces is changing our paradigm towards a food system; this requires many pieces. Policy plays a role, as do different projects and initiatives, but it also takes a lot of education and paradigm shifts in how we see food. For many people, food is just fuel, which it is. Still, we must rethink our relationship with and genuinely value food. Food is a part of culture, a way to unite us; it can heal the earth and help us all to flourish and reach our best potential. We talk about true-cost accounting (TCA) here at the Swette Center, but truly valuing food like that is an integral part of our work. If we don’t change the paradigm around it, then all our hard work pursuing projects and interventions won’t have a significant change. Shifting how we think about food can transform how we see our world regarding climate change and how we relate to each other; it’s a really powerful space. I hope we can play a small role in at least moving the needle in that direction.  

Any advice for current food systems students?

Food systems are incredibly complex, and it is important to try and experience different types of realities. Go on that internship to work on a farm. Go on that study abroad trip to see a different food system in another country. Get involved with your local farmers market and CSA. Find out about the Farm Bill and other policies that are taking place. I was involved, for example, in writing a proposed food system white paper for the European Union with an organization called Slow Food, which was demanding this change in narrative and thinking of sustainable food systems and thinking of this idea of one health, one planet. I was involved in the thinking and the research of it. It didn’t go through, but that policy is now written, and people advocate for it. So, I encourage people to enter these kinds of spaces, just like exploring the full scope of food systems. Find a chance to work in the agrifood business; it will give you a different perspective. Through working for a nonprofit in Egypt doing environmental education, I had a chance to help audit all these different farms. I got to see industrial-scale chicken production, which was like a fortress because the breeds are prized like gold; I also got to see the production of olives and grapes and all sorts of different things, so for me, it was fascinating to see that other part of things of like how a much more large-scale production looks like. So, I think what has given me a good breath of understanding, just like the scope of this and thinking from a food systems perspective, is having had all these different kinds of experiences. I would encourage students to try all these different things, even if they don’t sound very exciting, because it will teach you a lot about the system and put you in other people’s shoes.

What is your favorite food to make? 

So many! It depends on my mood. So, right now, my husband got me this really fun pizza oven, so it’s been enjoyable making pizzas, and I’m really into sourdough. So, I’ve been perfecting how to make an excellent sourdough and the sauce that goes with it, but I like it simple. I like my pizza with just a good tomato sauce that I make from scratch, and I make the sourdough with good flour, which I’m getting from Hayden Flour Mills, and then I like to add mozzarella, some mushrooms, onions, and basil.

Another thing I enjoy making is Egyptian food, and we have a ton of delicious recipes. One of my favorites is a dish called Molokheya, a broth made from any stock; you could use chicken stock, vegetable stock, or fish stock. Then, you collect leaves of this plant called Jew’s mallow, blend it so it’s very small, mix it in with the broth, and add some fried garlic and a bit of vinegary tomato sauce. It becomes like a stew that you eat with rice and pieces of chicken. It reminds me of home, so I started growing the mallow here in my garden, and now I have a stash of it so I can make Molokheya anytime.