University of California President Janet Napolitano launched the UC Global Food Initiative in 2014 to address one of the most compelling issues of our time: how to sustainably and nutritiously feed a world population expected to reach 8 billion by 2025. UC’s vision? A world with a sustainable food supply and zero hunger.

I recently heard President Napolitano say something simple, yet very profound. I tweeted her quote; it’s below.


Full disclosure: the UC Food Observer is a project under the Global Food Initiative. I serve as its editor, but enjoy editorial freedom granted to me by virtue of my role as an academic advisor with UC’s Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources. I’ve dedicated most of my professional career to educating youth, adults and communities about the food system and engaging in work that will directly increase food security. I’m a writer, but I’m also a food systems advocate.

I sometimes write about the Global Food Initiative because I think it provides an interesting model and bold vision for other public institutions and entities. I write about it because I believe in it … and I see that it’s working.

One of my favorite historians once wrote about the role of the “prophetic and the particular” in American life.

The Global Food Initiative is both.

Global Food Initiative as disruptor

The obvious acronym for the Global Food Initiative is “GFI.” A ground fault interrupter (invented by Charles Dalziel of UC Berkeley) is a safety mechanism, designed to shut off the power flowing through an electric circuit if it detects that the current is flowing along an “unintended” path.

The president’s charge has been to disrupt our work in some ways, by moving us out of our regular path. She’s urged us to engage and connect with one another around food systems work of all kinds, to embark upon new and collaborative projects that truly make the whole greater than the sum of our parts. And in that way, the GFI has been a positive disruptor and already has had significant impacts. Read about some of them here.

The call has been to not only look deeply at our own practices around food and sustainability, but to extend our work when possible to the state, nation and world. That’s disrupted some of our thinking, in good ways. It’s also inspired larger thinking across the system. A few of us working on food literacy issues is good. A systemwide committee reaching consensus that food literacy ought to be one goal of a UC education? BETTER.

As an institution, we’re looking at food production, food access and security, food sourcing, food education and communication, and food policy and public impact. Across the institution, we’re discussing food issues, at all levels, from student gatherings, campus dining halls, classrooms, laboratories (including outdoor laboratories, like gardens and farms) to the president’s office in Oakland to the broader community of UC stakeholders that is local and global and every place in between. We’ve formed working groups that are identifying and sharing best practices. (That’s been particularly helpful in terms of purchasing and sustainability). We’ve launched a very successful GFI student fellowship program. In June, we’ll announce the winners of our first “30 Under 30” awards, which will honor 30 young leaders who are transforming lives through their work in the food system.

Some other key accomplishments include exploring the impacts of climate change on agriculture, as well as looking at the potential of urban agriculture to reduce food disparities. We’re trying to reach consensus on the meaning of “food literacy” and how we might roll out a food literacy effort across UC campuses (and beyond).

Food as a hook

UCLA’s Dr. Wendy Slusser recently identified the power of what we’re working on, saying that “Food is a hook for everyone.” She also spoke about how she’s seen the GFI “amplify” work through the UC system and beyond, saying it’s enabling us to “export solutions” around the topics of food security, health and sustainability, across California, the nation and globally.

If you’re not in it (or even if you are), it’s easy to underestimate the scope, the breadth and depth of the UC system. It’s huge and wide-ranging. It’s a statewide network of institutions, people and programs. There are 10 campuses; five of these have medical centers. There’s also the Agriculture and Natural Resources division (ANR, home to Cooperative Extension and UC’s Research and Extension Centers).

UC has a presence – whether staff, offices and/or research centers – in every county in the state. UC also operates the 4-H and Master Gardener programs, delivers nutrition education programs and is home to three national labs, including Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. Each valuable piece of the UC system – including UC’s Office of the President – is part of the GFI.

UC is a big place and sometimes it’s easy to get lost. The GFI has enabled many of us to find one another, to meet a wider group of peers that can help inform our work and take it further than we could on our own. It may sound like a cliche, but “we’re better together.” (Thanks for those words to musician Jack Johnson. Johnson and his wife, Kim, are both graduates of UC Santa Barbara and have supported a number of food and sustainability projects there, including an Edible Campus Project).

Dr. Wendy Slusser, UCLA

UCLA’s Wendy Slusser is now one of my go-to people on human health and the food system. Prior to the GFI, I didn’t know her, although we are located within an hour’s drive of one another.

Making larger connections: Blum Federation and GFI

Last week, President Napolitano spoke at the UC Blum Centers Global Food Summit, which was co-sponsored by GFI and hosted by the UC Irvine Blum Center for Poverty Alleviation. The UC Irvine Blum Center was launched as part of the campus’s 50th anniversary. (President Lyndon Johnson – he of the Great Society effort, which committed the nation to alleviating poverty and social injustice – dedicated the campus in 1964; President Barack Obama delivered the commencement address for the campus’ 50th anniversary in 2014).

The UC Irvine Blum Center is part of a federation of Blum Centers spread across the UC system, all focused on crafting interdisciplinary approaches to poverty alleviation in California and across the globe. In addition to the Blum Center at Irvine, there are Blum Centers at UC Berkeley, UC Davis, UCLAUC Merced, UC RiversideUC San Diego, UC Santa Barbara and UC Santa Cruz. Each has a unique focus that reflects campus strengths, connections and regional concerns.

The Blum Federation – like UC’s Global Food Initiative – also seeks to connect and harness UC’s vast resources across the system to address the issues that plague the planet. I expect we’ll see even more collaboration in the future between the Blum Federation and the Global Food Initiative; after all poverty and food security are inextricably linked, here and across the globe. The challenges we face cross disciplines and borders. So do the solutions.

President Napolitano told us this:

“We have the ability — and the responsibility — to ‘think big,’ to challenge others to ‘think big,’ and, together, to combat threats like poverty, climate change and hunger.”

As someone who has benefited greatly from a UC education and who now works for the institution, I wholeheartedly agree. There is no higher calling. World-class problems require the attention of world-class institutions.

Conference takeaways are here. I also hope that you’ll take an opportunity to view the short video below, which shares some of the results of our GFI work.

And stay tuned for the “30 Under 30” announcement. We’re very excited!

Have a great day.