Research Feature: Chaiti Seth

My research aims to identify key leverage points for shifting towards more healthy, just, and sustainable institutional food systems, using Acadia University as a case study, and examining findings in the broader provincial context. This research builds on my prior work and relationships at Acadia investigating food system issues and university food culture.

Food is fundamental to all human life, and food systems – the ways that our food is produced, processed, distributed and consumed – have significant social, cultural, health, ecological and economic implications. The shift towards industrial food production has resulted in massive loss of knowledge and biodiversity, soil erosion, deforestation and habitat destruction, pollution, animal welfare concerns, waste production, as well as significant greenhouse gas emissions. The health crisis in relation to food is growing – societies are facing both over- and under-nutrition and diet-related diseases are prevalent amongst all populations. Most Canadians eat food that is neither healthy nor sustainably produced, and many face food insecurity or inequitable access to food.

Just as current food systems have many detrimental impacts, their potential for improving quality of life is also immense.  Sustainable pasture and farmland management strategies can support biodiversity, conserve soil and water, and help sequester carbon. Combined with other lifestyle factors, nutritious food has enormous preventative and healing potential. The market for food represents a source of positive and sustainable economic activity and community-based food systems have the potential to contribute to local economic development and provide meaningful employment. Last, but not least, is the magic of food in bringing people together – for everyday gathering and special occasions, for nourishment and healing and celebration. Food is powerful, and the decisions we make about what we eat, and how we produce it, matter.

Studies assessing individual behaviours identify the most effective food choices and habits for a shift to a healthy and sustainable food culture. At a societal level, national and regional organizations are currently advocating for a strong national food policy, and the federal government is engaging citizens in an ongoing consultation process. Bridging the space between individual and policy levels, institutions play a key role in food systems. They are large enough to have significant impact but do not typically have internal policies or a strong vision for food systems. In this gap, food services providers (FSPs) – multinational for-profit companies that typically run institutional food services – often unofficially dictate food policy. Due to the standardization and scale of institutional food systems, FSPs wield significant influence on food production, processing and consumption patterns. Research shows that institutions can strategically leverage their purchasing power to generate greater wealth and health in their communities. Despite a few individual success stories, there are significant barriers to broadly shifting institutional food practices.

Universities can play an essential role in facilitating change in institutional food culture. They serve and can critically engage young adults as both eaters and future leaders in food systems, and invest in economic and community health through food procurement. There is a growing demand for healthy and sustainable food services at universities. Research shows a critical need for effective strategies that address systemic and cultural barriers to change.

For this research, I use critical social science and transdisciplinary methodologies, incorporating mixed methods with four primary components: semi-structured stakeholder interviews, participant observation, document analysis of food services contracts, and numerical analysis of procurement data. I have conducted 14 interviews with internal stakeholders including students, faculty, staff and administration as well as external stakeholders such as change makers at other institutions, public policy-makers and non-profit advocates to gather rich data from a diversity of perspectives. I will integrate findings based on thematic coding and analysis of these interviews with information about strengths and gaps in existing contract language from other post-secondary institutions. Numerical analysis of procurement data will help determine relative impact and feasibility of specific interventions.

My research aims to build knowledge for shifting towards healthy, sustainable and just university food systems and is intended to support institutions to find creative and innovative solutions that can contribute to building more sustainable and resilient local communities through food systems change.