UC Berkeley alumna Jennifer Sowerwine works to restore cultural food security

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UC Berkeley alumna Jennifer Sowerwine, a College of Natural Resources, or CNR, cooperative extension specialist, has been working to restore and protect the cultural food systems of Native Americans and refugees.

Sowerwine said she is involved in multiple projects that ensure food security reaches the entire California public by working with underserved groups, primarily Native Americans and refugees — specifically Southeast Asian refugee farmers — to maintain or restore their cultural food security or access to traditional foods.

According to Sowerwine, her interest in helping disadvantaged groups in society started in her childhood. She added that as a child, she became aware of being born into privilege compared to others when she saw poverty firsthand while living in Honduras.

“My whole life and career have been devoted to serving those who have been traditionally underserved,” Sowerwine said.

Sowerwine’s most prominent project is working with tribes on cultural food security, a project that started in 2012 and is ongoing, according to Sowerwine. She added that her work with refugees from Southeast Asia stemmed from her doctoral research in Vietnam and from meeting refugees in the United States who were attempting to maintain their cultural foods on small plots of land.

“Jennifer Sowerwine’s research and outreach spans communities across California and the United States,” said CNR Dean J. Keith Gilless in an email. “Her work helps restore culturally relevant food systems to immigrant and Native American populations and is critically important to these communities and to the College.”

According to Megan Elizabeth Mucioki, a postdoctoral researcher working under Sowerwine on the Tribal Food Security Project, she and Sowerwine actively involve the communities that they study. Sowerwine said, for example, that with tribes, she listens to what they have to say when deciding how to help them use U.S. Department of Agriculture grant money and has them work with her on surveys in addition to interpreting the research results.

“The project has generated conversation on food and native foods in the community that probably was not happening as widely before this project,” Mucioki said in an email. “We have had a really positive response on our research and publications from our tribal collaborators as it tells a really powerful story about food in Native American households in the region.”

Sowerwine stated that she has worked with the communities she serves on multiple programs, such as helping refugees from Southeast Asia get access to food safety training previously available only in English and bringing Native American youth and elders together in order to help preserve old cultures.

“Working with (Sowerwine) opened a whole lot of doors for our tribe,” said Karuk Tribe member and Pikyav Field Institute Program Manager Lisa Hillman. “The project’s success also led to a second, three-year USDA grant that should continue to point the way forward and help mitigate some past harms for the Karuk Tribe.”

Yao Huang covers research and ideas. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @Yhoneplus.

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Jennifer Sowerwine is a College of Natural Resources cooperative extension specialist. In fact, Sowerwine is an assistant cooperative extension specialist.