Graduate Student Works With Food Policy Council to Combat Rising Food Scarcity Due to COVID

Nel Gaudé worked in kitchens for a decade before now pursuing a master’s degree in food studies. This tangible professional cooking experience gives them insight and allows them to think creatively about issues related to their coursework.
A person is standing in a studio kitchen
Neil Gaudé

After Gaudé was displaced from their job due to COVID, the late food studies Professor Evan Weissman connected Gaudé with the facilitator for the Syracuse-Onondaga Food Systems Alliance (SOFSA). Weissman was an associate professor in food studies and nutrition at Falk College for eight years before passing away unexpectedly while at home with his family on April 9. His research examined grassroots efforts to address food disparities in urban America.

“Evan had a very genuine and honest and humble way of looking at the world and doing it with such compassion. A lot of people that are involved with SOFSA knew Evan very well. I think we all are trying to do what he would have done in the way he would have done it and try to remember how he thought about things and how he approached them,” Gaudé says.

SOFSA is a new food policy council that sprang into action in response to COVID. “They saw the need to help organize and try to connect people with emergency food,” says Gaudé, who is working with SOFSA to establish an organizational structure while fulfilling the spiraling demand for emergency food. They have been researching other food policy councils, designating leaders and working on the bylaws. Gaudé says they are trying to make sure that social justice and racial justice is embedded within the organization itself. “We can’t achieve any kind of food justice without facing those things,” they says.

SU News sat down with Gaudé to discuss their role with SOFSA and the challenges the Syracuse community faces in mitigating food shortages due to the pandemic.

Q: What are you researching while working with SOFSA?

A: Most of the food policy councils that exist have more of a traditional leadership, like president, secretary, treasurer, co-chair, that sort of thing. Right now, we’re trying to do some research on non-hierarchical leadership or horizontal leadership, just to see if that improves the equity of the operations of the organization. I’m still doing research on that to see if that’s even a thing that people have tried, and if it works the way they think and want it to. We’re still looking and evaluating.

Q: How has the pandemic created more food scarcity?

A: The pandemic has really emphasized and exaggerated the inequities that already existed. We’ve seen all of these standard and popular supply chains really falter. Other avenues like shorter, value or regional supply chains have been able to rethink and redesign how they connect people with food. I think it’s really exciting work to be doing right now, because we have this impetus and this momentum to truly assess the current food system, make changes and start doing things in a more efficient and equitable way.

We’ve also been very cognizant and explicit about the things that we want to include and embed within the core mission of the organization, like systemic racism and the toll it has had in marginalized communities and the food system. You can’t separate the two.

Q: What are some initial challenges?

A: One of the things that we’re struggling with right now is reaching stakeholders with the lived experiences of the situations that we’re trying to address. That’s absolutely essential to have, to have the residents represent themselves. Without their input and voices telling us what they need, then we become just a group of mostly white people trying to do a good thing.

We’ve also been working democratically amongst all of the members and inviting anyone who expresses interest to be a part of it. We are trying to get out as far as we can into the community without physically going out into the community, due to COVID. Inviting people to come to the meetings, to come to the advisory board meetings and help us, critique us, tell us where we could be doing better.

It is a difficult time to be a young organization, because all of the traditional avenues to gain traction, visibility and new membership are not available to us right now. We’ve been getting a lot of input and feedback on our development thus far and trying to find like models that exist just to identify best practices. We’ve been connecting with other established organizations like Syracuse Hope, and with Peter Ricardo at the CNY Food Bank.

Q: What have you learned in this process?

A: I think one thing that I didn’t understand was the importance of food knowledge. It is one thing to pass a bill that says that corner stores need to have a percentage of fresh food, but if the members of the community that shop there don’t necessarily know what to do with it, they’re not going to eat it. For instance I think I’m biased because I cook everything, and if I don’t know, then I’ll look it up. But I’m also not a single parent of four kids with two jobs that doesn’t have time to educate myself on how to cook a rhubarb. It is a privileged thing to be able to afford to destroy a dish to a point where it is inedible. If you’re unable to afford more food, what are you going to feed your family if that happens?

We have been partnering with other organizations, like Jessi Lyons at Brady Farms to brainstorm different events that we could have given the limitations with COVID. I think letting people see the farm, how a carrot really looks out of the ground, and then also pair that with a cooking demo. It shows that cooking is not scary. It is scary until you know how to do it. Once you get past that fear, then it is a lot of fun.

~ A Syracuse University story by Brandon Dyer originally published on March 8, 2021.