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Q&A with Shana Starobin

Shana Starobin, a doctoral candidate at the Nicholas School of the Environment, attended a forum at the White House earlier this month on fighting hunger with AmpleHarvest—a nonprofit organization that coordinates donations of excess produce to families in need. During her time at Duke, Starobin has researched how to address food insecurity in the U.S. and abroad with sustainable farming. The Chronicle’s Danielle Muoio sat down with Starobin to discuss her research, the White House forum and her role with AmpleHarvest.

The Chronicle:Your research focuses on how nonstate actors can foster alternative solutions to socioeconomic and ecological problems. Can you discuss some of these alternative solutions?

Shana Starobin: From my research, one of the most important emerging solutions advanced by communities and organizations seeking to enhance food sovereignty among small farmers and promote improved environmental stewardship is agroecology. Agroecology is a holistic approach to agriculture and food systems that integrates the traditional knowledge and experiences that many small farmers already possess with ecological principles and practices. In a presumed effort to remedy global poverty and food insecurity, international development organizations and global companies often encourage small farmers to adopt production methods and technologies that are, in many cases, only appropriate for large-scale, industrial producers. An unfortunate result from the promotion of these unsustainable solutions has been producer dependency on continued, capital-intensive inputs, such as genetically-modified seeds lasting only one season, chemical fertilizer and pesticides. This ultimately undermines the goals of alleviating poverty and food insecurity among subsistence farmers. Agroecology encourages subsistence farmers to resuscitate ancestral agricultural practices and integrate them with new knowledge on ecologically-restorative ones. [For example], diversifying crop species to mitigate risk and improve nutrition, or saving seeds from one harvest to the next to guard native seed varieties and save input costs.

TC: Can you talk a bit about what Ample Harvest does?

SS: AmpleHarvest.org is an innovative nonprofit organization that leverages the power of the internet to connect millions of gardeners nationwide to their local food pantries, where they can donate their excess produce to help local families in need and reduce food waste.

As an opt-in nation-wide registry of food pantries, AmpleHarvest.org complements existing governmental and charity organizations assisting low income, food insecure families in the U.S. by augmenting the local supply of fresh fruits and vegetables.

Fresh produce is often unavailable in food pantries and otherwise inaccessible to families on a limited budget, who cannot often afford to pay the comparatively high prices of fresh produce. Food pantries are often a resource of last resort for food insecure households, with demand surging when the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as Food Stamps, and other benefits have been exhausted.

Because AmpleHarvest.org enables pantries to tell the donors the ideal days and times to donate, food pantries can now ask the community to donate food in sync with the increasing need as clients exhaust other benefits.

TC: Can you talk about your role in the White House event on fighting hunger?

SS: I participated in the White House event—Creating Pathways to Opportunity Forum: Fighting Food Insecurity in America—as a representative of AmpleHarvest.org... which I am a board member of. The White House convened this forum to bring together senior administration officials, children’s advocacy organizations, key anti-hunger groups and foundation leaders with the hopes of strengthening the diverse network of stakeholders tackling food insecurity in the United States.

AmpleHarvest is probably one of the newer and younger organizations there.... We have a very small but hopefully growing staff, so a lot of the board members have taken on other roles to support the growth of the organization. I have background in policy and also do research on food issues and part of the reason AmpleHarvest recruited me to be part of the board was so I could offer the expertise to the organization. Gary [Oppenheimer, founder and executive director of AmpleHarvest,] wanted me to go to the event so we could meet other organizations working in the space and understand how we could collaborate and see what kind of solutions we could bring to the table in terms of compliments to the existing programs that the government and other nonprofit organizations are currently providing.

TC: What did you talk about at the conference?

SS: In July, the House Agriculture Committee put forth its version of the updated Farm Bill that continues to be debated in the House and the Senate. One of the strategies they deal with when trying to save money is to make very drastic cuts to SNAP, which is...one of the most effective programs in trying to alleviate hunger in the United States. There’s a tremendous amount of evidence that says [the program] is a very efficient use of taxpayer dollars.

The organizations were talking about how there are other ways to make up revenue... that do not require taking away programs that are serving the lowest income and most vulnerable populations in America.

Just to contextualize this, AmpleHarvest is not an advocacy organization—we work on programs that will supplement the existing set of programs. So we were in a unique position in that conversation because most of the other organizations were very focused on their concerns to the cuts to the SNAP programs.

TC: What would you recommend to Duke students who are looking to get involved in fighting hunger?

SS: Duke students looking to get involved in fighting hunger have many opportunities here in Durham and North Carolina to get involved, depending on whether they want to be hands-on—doing direct service—or dedicate their skills to educating, organizing and advocating in the policy realm.

The most important first step is to get educated about the issues. Part of alleviating hunger involves raising awareness of the prevalence of food insecurity around the world and in our own backyards. In the U.S. alone, in 2010, some 48.8 million people lived in food insecure households.

For those with green thumbs, there are many opportunities at Duke and in North Carolina to expand one’s own knowledge of gardening, farming and growing food, such as the Duke Campus Farm and Duke Community Garden, and capacity building communities to do the same, like SEEDS and the Interfaith Food Shuttle. And those less inclined to the gardens and more to their keyboards can help organizations like AmpleHarvest.Org by contributing... their research, writing and social-media skills.

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