Gail Feenstra retires after 33 years of championing sustainable food systems

Gail Feenstra
Gail Feenstra

Gail Feenstra, director of the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program, retired July 1 after 33 years of serving Californians through UC Agriculture and Natural Resources. Her research and outreach have focused on strengthening food systems, encompassing farmers, consumers and communities.

“I have been proud to help build the concepts and practices of sustainable farming and food systems in California,” she said, defining sustainable as including environmental resilience and stewardship, economic viability and social justice and equity for all. “Long-term health for individuals, for communities, for our natural resources and the planet requires this broad approach.”

After earning a bachelor's degree in dietetics from UC Davis in 1978, “I soon discovered, dietetics was not quite for me,” Feenstra said. “I transitioned to community nutrition, worked as a WIC nutritionist for a few years and discovered that the nutrition issues that frustrated me were systems related. A few years later, when I went to Teachers College, Columbia University, to study with Dr. Joan Gussow, one of the leaders of the local food systems movement, I discovered a whole new perspective—food as part of a larger system!”

Feenstra joined UC ANR in 1989 as a writer for the newly formed SAREP and managed the competitive grants offered by the program.

“It was an exhilarating time in the late 1980s to be a part of creating and communicating about the first sustainable agriculture program to be established at a land-grant university anywhere in the nation,” she said. SAREP became a model for sustainable agriculture programs formed at other land-grant universities around the country.

As SAREP developed, Feenstra took on the role of coordinator to lead the community food system projects. Sales for local farms and food businesses, increased community awareness about where their food comes from and a willingness to seek out sources of locally grown food are critical to sustainable community food systems. To achieve those three goals, SAREP provided a grant to launch the PlacerGrown marketing campaign in 1994, which inspired farmers and consumers in other counties to create locally grown programs to strengthen their communities.

In the late 1990s, Feenstra, who has a doctorate in nutrition education from Columbia University with an emphasis in public health, introduced the concept of community food security to build an understanding of the links between hunger and agriculture. She began research on direct marketing and educating small and midscale farmers on how to sell crops at farmers markets and to restaurants and retailers. Over 80% of farmers landed new buyer contacts after attending her marketing workshops.

Feenstra speaks into mic held by a female recorder as a videographer records.
Feenstra tells Univision reporter the benefits of a farm-to-school program in 2015.

She also promoted farm-to-school programs and nutrition education. 

“For me, the concept was a perfect way to bring together local agriculture and nutrition education to boost farm income and provide healthful food to children using the National School Lunch Program as a subsidy to help make it all happen,” Feenstra said. SAREP funded cooking classes to teach school cooks – who were accustomed to serving packaged foods – to prepare nutritious school meals with fresh produce. 

“Gail's accomplishments as a leader both statewide and nationally in the farm to school movement, as well as in community engaged food system assessments, have resulted in policy, systems and environmental changes benefitting some of the most vulnerable members of our communities including youth, small-scale socially disadvantaged farmers, and the food insecure,” said Jennifer Sowerwine, UC Cooperative Extension specialist in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy & Management at UC Berkeley.

To help small and midsized farmers coordinate to sell to institutional and retail buyers that need large quantities, Feenstra and her colleagues organized a California Food Hub Network.

“Not only have the food hubs contributed to strengthening regional food markets and improving the economic prosperity of their member farmers, they were also instrumental in helping communities pivot during the early days of COVID in 2020,” Feenstra said. “Many of them helped identify local producers who could bring food to the food hubs, where it could be distributed to food banks, retailers and even individuals who needed food.”

In recent years, SAREP has added agritourism as another means for farmers to remain economically sustainable. To enhance local food production and food security, Feenstra and her colleagues have begun offering advice for urban farmers and she led a special project for youth leaders in urban farming.

“Gail has been instrumental to our UC ANR efforts to provide support for California's urban farmers,” said Rachel Surls, UCCE sustainable food systems advisor in Los Angeles County. “From conducting a statewide needs assessment of urban farms, to developing workshops on the business of urban farming, Gail has been integral to our UC ANR Urban Agriculture Working Group for the past decade.”

With colleagues from a national research project, Feenstra pioneered county-based food system evaluations. One of the greatest benefits of these reports, she said, is they promote communication between farmers and low-income communities, including farmworkers, whose health and work are affected by farming practices.

Two people listen as a chef in white hat and uniform speaks while stirring large pot of soup.
In 2013, school chef Donnie Barclift, in white cooking pazole, told Feenstra students like meals prepared with fresh produce.

While continuing her research and extension, Feenstra took on administrative duties, serving as SAREP's deputy director from 2008 to 2018, then interim director of the Agricultural Sustainability Institute, which contained SAREP at the time, from 2019 to 2020. When SAREP became independent of the institute in 2020, she was appointed director.

In May, the Agriculture, Food and Human Values Society honored Feenstra as the 2022 recipient of its Richard P. Haynes Distinguished Lifetime Achievement Award in Agriculture, Food and Human Values. 

“Much of her work has centered on the unique circumstances, challenges and opportunities of California food and agricultural systems, but the impact of her work is in no way confined to California alone,” Clare Hinrichs, professor of rural sociology at Pennsylvania State University, wrote in her letter nominating Feenstra for the award. “The fruitful insights and applications of Gail's work have traveled well beyond her home state. Her cogent thinking and practical frameworks have inspired and guided others from across the U.S. and other countries engaged in research and practice to enhance community and regional food systems.”

In addition to her academic work, Feenstra served as AFHVS president in 2000-2001 and has served on the board twice.

“As I have reviewed my career, two sentiments come to the fore – gratitude and humility,” Feenstra said. “I have had the good fortune to work for 33 years with wonderful, committed people who share strong values about a fair and equitable society, coupled with a passion for environmental, economic and personal health for all people and the planet.”

Acknowledging Feenstra's extensive career contributions, UC ANR has awarded her emeritus status. As an emeritus academic, she plans to help evaluate the California Department of Food and Agriculture's Farm to School Incubator Grant Program in addition to spending more time with her grandchildren, gardening, quilting, traveling and, eventually, volunteering for local food systems activities.

This article was orginally published at UC ANR Employee News.