Sustainability Certificate Prepares Sara Snyder (ENV ’18) for Career in Food Justice

May 10, 2018

Tim Lucas, (919) 613-8084,

Sara Snyder presents her research.

By Parker Brown, Communications Specialist

DURHAM, N.C. — Sara Snyder, a senior Environmental Sciences major who will graduate with distinction, has a passion for sustainable food systems.

Snyder decided to pursue the Certificate in Sustainability Engagement to augment her environmental sciences coursework and delve deeper into how the social and economic pillars of sustainability relate to food systems.

The Certificate in Sustainability Engagement is designed to help students develop skills for assessing the complexities of sustainability in real-world systems and developing and implementing effective solutions to sustainability challenges. To earn the certificate, students must take four courses, complete two immersive co-curricular experiences and create a public-facing ePortfolio.

Duke Environment corresponded with Snyder recently to talk about the value of adding the certificate to supplement her studies, her time spent working at the Duke Campus Farm, her dreams for the future, and what person she would most want to have dinner with.

Why did you decide to pursue the Certificate in Sustainability Engagement, and how has completing the certificate enriched your learning?

I chose to pursue the Certificate in Sustainability Engagement because I wanted a mode through which to channel and interpret the numerous classes I had taken and the experiences I had been involved in that all related to food and agriculture.

The structure of the certificate especially appealed to me because I wanted to delve more into how the social and economic pillars of sustainability related to food systems. The certificate’s inclusion of courses and experiences that touched on all three pillars provided a satisfying complement to my extensive education about ecological sustainability that I had received via my major in environmental sciences.
What advice would you give to other students considering this certificate?

The certificate offers a unique opportunity to explore a topic that you’re interested in that isn’t offered as a major or minor. I would recommend pursuing the certificate if you have a passion related to sustainability that you want to become a greater part of your academic experience.

What sparked your interest in sustainable agriculture and food justice, and what has been your biggest takeaway from your research/coursework so far?

My interest in the sustainable food systems began before I came to Duke. I grew up in eastern North Carolina - a region known as an epicenter of hog production. I discovered my passion for environmental science in high school but recognized a tension between a narrative I heard in my science classes that hog concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) in the area were polluting the rivers and another narrative prevalent in my community that farmers operating CAFOs were cash-strapped and struggling to comply with regulations.

This tension perplexed me and compelled me to understand more of the nuances existing in ‘alternative’ agriculture models over my four years at Duke, particularly the way in which racism manifests itself in alternative food systems.

My biggest takeaway would be that food can be a tool of oppression and perpetuate social inequities, but that it can also be a tool of empowerment and allow communities to become resilient and attain self-determination. Using a sustainability framework is a helpful way to achieve the latter, but trade-offs often exist when trying to achieve one component of sustainability, and sometimes advancing one pillar of sustainability adversely impacts the others.

What has been your favorite Environmental Science class at Duke and why?

My favorite Environmental Sciences course was ENV590, a sustainable food systems course taught by Saskia Cornes. This class challenged ideas I held about what sustainability means in the context of food systems. This class also allowed me to interrogate the intersection of race and food by completing a final project on ways in which student groups could support POC (people of color) leadership within the alternative food system - a topic that I have continued to engage in and build off of during my senior year.

How have you been able to apply what you've learned in the classroom at the Duke Campus Farm?

Duke Campus Farm (DCF) is not only my employer, it is also a space through which I can explore and engage in ideas from my coursework. For example, in the fall of 2017 I was taking a field research methods course. For the class final project, I measured soil moisture at DCF and completed a topographic survey of the area as a way to understand what environmental factors are influencing drainage at the farm. Through this project, among others, I have been able to consider the multiple facets by which sustainability can be defined and achieved for an organization like DCF.

What do you see yourself doing after Duke?

I aspire to do food justice work that addresses oppression and creates economic opportunities for people in the food system who have been disadvantaged. However, I think that a myriad of careers could lead me to this work. For instance, agriculture extension, anti-hunger nonprofits, food policy research organizations, and even more generally, social justice and community organizing groups all further the goals of food justice. I’m not sure yet which path aligns best with my interests and skills.
If you could have dinner with anyone (deceased or alive) who would it be and why?

I have long been a fan of the artist Chris Jordan. He uses his art to express the magnitude of social and environmental problems. I have always been struck by the ingenuity of his series Running the Numbers which illustrates statistics that are often employed to communicate the severity of issues. For example, he created a portrait using 200,000 heirloom seeds that represents the number of Indian farmers who have committed suicide since Monsanto introduced GMO cotton seeds to the country. I would love to have a conversation with him about how other issues embedded in the food system could be communicated through art.