A Force for Change
Each time a man stands up for an ideal or acts to improve the lot of others or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope and, crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.
– Robert F. Kennedy
Joanne Burke has ushered forth a tidal wave. As the Director of the UNH graduate level Dietetic Internship in the College of Life Sciences and Agriculture (COLSA) at the University of New Hampshire (UNH), Burke shares her passion for food justice with her students in addition to being a voice of leadership across the nation. “I have always had an interest in hunger and food security rooted in my commitment to social justice,” says Burke. “I believe that – in a country that produces so much food – all Americans should have access to a healthy diet.”
Knowing that hunger is a social issue with strong economic, biological and physiological implications, Burke maintains that we cannot afford to only treat the symptoms of food insecurity without addressing the upstream causes. “We need to identify meaningful solutions, and build the capacity for social and economic platforms that promote a society where people can earn a livable wage, thrive where they reside, and reach their full potential,” says Burke. “While some people will always need help, presently many more US citizens are actively working or seeking employment but unable to meet basic human needs. As fundamental as the civil rights movement of the 60’s, there is a growing realization that persistent societal inequities, be they evidenced as inadequate access to food, water, clothing or shelter, serve to undermine the ability of a society to thrive and survive.”
Burke’s dedication to alleviating hunger and her influential leadership on campus, regionally, and throughout the nation was recognized by the Hunger and Environmental Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group’s prestigious Excellence in Hunger and Environmental Nutrition Award last fall. For Burke, this individual honor also serves to bring additional credence to the University’s commitment to sustainability while drawing prospective students interested in this field to the Nutrition program. “It’s such a privilege – and a responsibility – to work with students,” says Burke. “The nutrition field is so enriched by other findings: the psychology of eating, metabolic interrupters, a genetic basis for obesity. As a registered dietitian, I am continually learning.” As Burke stays on the cutting-edge, she sees more and more young professionals who were once her students now committed to systems thinking … and hiring her recent dietetic internship graduates.
While humbled by this honor, Burke is also buoyed by the work the Hunger and Environmental Nutrition organization is doing. “We are committed to long term strategies to make food and water available to all Americans,” says Burke. “The Hunger and Environmental Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group is leading the way in asking critical questions about hunger and environmental problems as related to nutrition. We are taking a hard look at our professional association, which has an established relationship with the dominant food industry, and challenging some of its practices by providing critical insight and guidance for more sustainable food system practices and policies.”
A deeper understanding of inadequate access to food influences much of the emerging food system work that is addressing the root causes of hunger in America. According to Burke nearly 15% of United States citizens report food insecurity. In New Hampshire, the number of people using the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as Food Stamps) has doubled in the last ten years. Though in part due to better outreach, the increased participation rates are also indicative of escalating rates of individuals and households who are unable to afford a basic, healthy diet. When people must choose between food or fuel costs, many decide to pay their heating bill. And unlike other developed countries that have embraced access to food as a basic human right, the United States uses a patchwork system of public and private initiatives to address food insecurity.
“Addressing solutions to hunger and food insecurity requires a systems approach that does more than address the immediate causes of lack of food and food disparity,” Burke explains. “On the one hand, in a crisis situation such as floods and fires, one needs emergency food assistance so that children and their families do not go to bed hungry. On the other hand, persistent hunger and poverty demand a systems approach. We need to be looking at what type of food is available in a community, whether youth are being trained for the jobs of the future, if communities and Universities have the capacity to educate for the next century, and whether our food production practices are promoting a healthy environment now and into the future.”
Burke is an important voice in promoting dietary advice at the national level. Her vision is for guidelines that are not just healthy, but sustainable in long-term food production. “Good nutrition is about a lot more than food and calories,” says Burke whose early training focused on how to stretch the value of a dollar. “Now it’s about thinking bigger – will these methods be sustainable, because it’s healthy land that produces the healthy food that produces healthy people.” She is presently participating in a Sustainability Institute regional food system “Vision” project initiative designed to explore the aspirational possibilities for a more sustainable, resilient, and just food system in New England from now through 2060.
“There is much to do,” says Burke. “I am honored to work in a field where I can make a difference, and have always admired the late Robert Kennedy who gave his life in service. As he was known to say, the individual work we do does indeed make a difference, collectively.” Currently, Burke is working in cooperation with Margaret Sova McCabe, Professor of Law and Associate Dean of Academic Administration and Special Projects at the UNH School of Law – also a faculty fellow in the Sustainability Institute, on a plan to address children’s hunger in a project spearheaded by the New Hampshire Children’s Alliance. “These types of community engagements serve to address the needs of our statewide constituents, and leverage the University’s expertise in helping to address complex problems.” Likewise, the collaborative work through the Sustainability Institute serves to advance state and regional efforts, and demonstrates UNH’s Commitment to building a robust, sustainable food system for all.