Enlightened about social justice and the power of policy, Beth Smoker makes a career transition and effects real change in her local food system – and in people’s lives
As she was about to turn 30, Beth Smoker felt there was something missing. She had a great job as an environmental scientist. Yet, she longed to be making a real, immediate impact on people’s lives. Exploring her options, she discovered Marylhurst’s M.S. in Food Systems & Society program – the key to opening new doors.
Two years later, in the spring of 2016, Beth graduated with her master’s degree. Even before graduation, she was making significant contributions with three organizations: Sacramento Food Policy Council, California Climate and Agriculture Network, and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.
We talked with Beth about how her passion led to her new profession.
Why the M.S. in Food Systems & Society degree? And why Marylhurst University?
My gravitation towards studying the food system was gradual after finishing my undergraduate degree in environmental science. I worked as a scientist for almost six years, bouncing around different companies and specialties, but I kept feeling like something was missing from my work. I had volunteered with different food access nonprofits throughout this same time and began to see the food system as the perfect lens for connecting environmental issues and people. I thought “people” was the missing piece in my science work, but soon after starting the Food Systems & Society program I realized it was not only people, but more specifically social justice.
I was incredibly nervous to go back to school and give up what was in many people’s eyes the perfect, stable job for a degree that usually gets the response of blank stares. I was full of doubts until the first day of class when I heard Patricia Allen welcoming our cohort. Her speech gave me chills all over my body. In that moment, I knew this was where I supposed to be. She was able to put to words all the thoughts and ideas I had swarming in my head that I couldn’t yet articulate or fully understand. A lot of people in my life would say, “Oh, you are going to study your passion.” Passion is important, but sometimes that word sounded minimizing to me, like it’s brushed off as a hobby. But that first day I remember thinking: This was not just a passion, but my vocation — a calling for my life.
I came to Marylhurst because of its one-of-a-kind M.S. in Food Systems & Society program. Admittedly, I was nervous about an online program, but I now boast about its benefits. It allowed for me to stay put with my family and to work in my community at the same time. The food system is a global system. Our online culture allowed us to engage in global perspectives with cohort members across the world.
Tell us about the work being done at the Sacramento Food Policy Council.
Sacramento Food Policy Council’s mission is to propel collective action toward an equitable and sustainable food system by building alignment, advancing policies and convening advocates, policymakers and organizations around a shared agenda. We aim for all of our work to have an end goal of policy change that advances social equity and uplifts marginalized voices. We currently function through four subcommittees focusing on different issue areas—school food, local food procurement, sustainability and environment, and food justice. All these subcommittees are led by community members. Our main political campaign right now is working with the Sacramento City Unified School District to prioritize the building of a promised central kitchen. Most schools right now are not equipped to cook food from scratch, where a central kitchen would allow for the daily preparation of fresh, healthy food serving all schools in the district. We believe it’s time for the school district to deliver on its promises.
What do you do as vice president? (and how did you get that position, by the way?)
I came to Sacramento Food Policy Council while it was in its initial development, with a newly heightened awareness (from my studies) that policy is often a missing piece of food system work, and also one of the most important pieces to ensure lasting, transformative social change. I am also intrigued by the concept of food policy councils, bringing together diverse stakeholders across a complicated food and agriculture system to find commonalities to work together. I eagerly started volunteering my time with Sacramento Food Policy Council and was nominated to be vice president when an opening presented itself. It’s a great example of our Food System & Society program’s distinguishing focus on “scholar-activism,” where I sought out an avenue to directly apply my studies.
How did your Marylhurst education play a role in landing this opportunity – and any others?
In addition to my volunteer position with the Sacramento Food Policy Council, I have a number of different jobs and volunteer work that keep me busy. I am currently consulting for the California Climate and Agriculture Network (CalCAN), which is a coalition of sustainable agriculture organizations and farmer leaders that advances agricultural solutions to climate change through state policy. I also have a contract with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, where I am helping to develop their Agroecology Knowledge Hub. Additionally, I am board president for a nonprofit engaged in food access and community development work, Alchemist CDC.
My M.S. in Food Systems & Society degree undoubtedly played a large role in my achievements so far. The intellectual knowledge is certainly one piece. Even more so, the unconditional faith from my professors that Marylhurst graduates can be the face of change has given me courage and confidence in my voice. Work in the food system is a growing field, where having a master’s degree in the subject is unique and relevant.
Your thesis was about the potential for municipalities to utilize inherent systems and skills to address issues of food justice and food security. How have you applied your research findings to your work?
My thesis explained that municipal government can play a constructive role in contributing to an equitable food system if done through collaboration and a lens of food justice. I plan to continue pursing my ideas and information uncovered from my research, and the Food Policy Council may be a great platform for this work. What’s more, my research confirmed for me that our government has a responsibility to uphold food as a human right, which is a guiding principle to all my work.
What’s next for you?
My goal with grad school was to transition my career path and to feel like I am making a positive impact in the world. I have been incredibly blessed with opportunities to apply my Food Systems & Society teachings in congruence with my studies over the past year. I have a strong pull towards policy work as an avenue for transformative change. Along similar lines, I enjoy thinking systemically and finding ways to increase collaboration and partnerships across food and agriculture issues. I plan to continue working in my current roles and then pursue work centered around collaboration and policy. The food system is dynamic and complex, but through my studies, I know that by applying a lens of social equity to any issue will point me in the right direction.
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