Food Tank

Sarah Sem on Engaging Young People in the Food System

As President of The Store at George Washington University, Sarah Sem calls for open discussion about food security.

Sarah Sem, advisor for the  The Store at George Washington University (GW), will be speaking at the Washington D.C. Food Tank Summit, “Cultivating the Next Generation of Young Food Leaders,” which will be held in partnership with GW, World Resources Institute, the National Farmers Union, Future Farmers of America, and the National Young Farmers Coalition on February 28, 2018.

Sem is a sophomore at GW’s School of Media and Public Affairs studying Political Communication. Since leaving her small town in Jericho, Vermont to start school, Sem has increased her exposure to advocacy by working with various student organizations to address food insecurity and gender inequality in her community and abroad.

Sarah Sem will be speaking at Food Tank’s D.C. Summit on February 28, 2018.

At GW, Sem served as President of The Store in 2017, and currently serves as an advisor. The Store is a food pantry providing resources and support for students living with food insecurity. During her time as President, Sem has helped over 600 members of the GW community and developed the mission of The Store: “to address student need at GW by offering food and other resources to ensure that every student has the opportunity to succeed.”

Food Tank had the opportunity to speak with Sarah about her work, leadership, and ambitions for innovation in the food system.

Food Tank (FT): What originally inspired you to get involved in your work?

Sarah Sem (SS): I wanted to get involved in The Store because when I first learned about it, I was curious about the need it addressed. I worked at food shelves when I was younger, but I never thought those issues extended to college students, especially at a university like GW. I started volunteering and reading the thank-you letters shoppers had written and my curiosity quickly grew into passion. The letters showed me the impact The Store had on these individuals’ educational experiences and lives. One letter, in particular, struck me and inspired me to get more involved. It opened my eyes to the reality of food insecurity for students, and that resources like The Store can have some real impact. Through my work at  The Store, I was able to facilitate open dialogue on campus about the prevalence of food insecurity and the various ways to alleviate its symptoms.

FT: How are you helping to build a better food system?

SS: At The Store, we’re helping build a better food system by raising awareness about and providing solutions to problems like balancing a healthy diet with a limited budget. We tie the state of the food system closely to education, as food insecurity can directly impact a student’s performance and level of engagement in school. If a member of our community worries about how they are going to pay for their next meal, they cannot prioritize school. We aim to fill in that gap so members of the GW community can access healthy food and focus on their educational experience.

FT: What’s the most pressing issue in food and agriculture that you’d like to see solved?

SS:. In every community, people struggle to eat food that is healthy without breaking the bank. While the number of stores and social media accounts focused on healthy eating is steadily increasing, many people struggle to afford a healthy diet. We need to solve the systemic imbalance between convenience, cost, and nutrition, it shouldn’t be as hard as it is to eat healthy.

FT: What innovations in food and agriculture are you most excited about?

SS: I am most excited about food recovery efforts like Hungry Harvest: a program that redistributes rejected produce from supermarkets through a subscription service, reducing food waste and offering offerable rates to users. We’ve partnered with them at The Store, and some students even order it on an individual basis. The Store is creating an app to would allow shoppers to communicate their needs and feedback more effectively and plan to engage with students, teaching them how to balance a budget, find nutritious dining options, and locate the resources they need. I think social media’s growing influence in the food industry and new apps that cater to various food-related needs, (whether it be budgeting, dieting, or managing a healthy lifestyle) are exciting to be a part of.

FT: What is one small change every person can make in their daily lives to make a big difference?

SS: I think raising awareness about food insecurity on college campuses will make a big difference. If we can each educate ourselves on the background of the issues, we can develop permanent solutions in our own communities.

FT: What is the best opportunity for young or aspiring farmers and entrepreneurs to get a foothold in America’s agricultural future?

SS: Young or aspiring farmers can start by being more active in their communities to assess the need for food and the impacts of agriculture. It is crucial for these individuals to discern between what they are interested in and the major need of the community. Engaging in educational events such as summits or conferences is important because these events provide opportunities to get involved, meet like-minded individuals, and support those in need.

FT: How can we best stimulate young people’s curiosity about food and agriculture and encourage their participation in building healthier food systems?

SS: I believe social media is an effective way to reach and engage young people today. Putting together a healthy food fair and advertising the event on Facebook, for example, can catch a young person’s eye. Facebook live events can increase participation from younger demographics, even passively. At The Store, we’ve started making how-to cooking videos and advertising our ingredients through social media. Presenting food and agricultural issues on a platform young people regularly engage with will helps stimulate their curiosity.

Tickets for the 2018 D.C. Food Tank Summit are selling out quickly! Join us in Washington D.C. on February 28th as we discuss cultivating the next generation of food leaders. Apply to attend HERE.

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