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A screenshot of a Google map adapted by Seeding Resilience to show food distribution and pickup locations throughout the Buffalo-area.

A screenshot of a Google map adapted by Seeding Resilience to show food distribution and pickup locations throughout the Buffalo-area.

Coalition addresses food inequity: GSE professor’s research resonates in the food crisis of the pandemic

BY MICHELLE KEARNS

After the COVID-19 pandemic closed schools, Sarah A. Robert, GSE associate professor of learning and instruction, and specialist in school food politics, began volunteering with Seeding Resilience. This Buffalo coalition of community members, nonprofits, schools and government—organized spring 2020 to address food inequities highlighted by the pandemic—aligned with Robert’s research.

Portrait of Sarah A. Robert.

Sarah A. Robert

As a policy analyst, she works to improve public understanding of the critical role schools play in distributing food. Local needs were highlighted at the beginning of the pandemic when school buildings closed. The Buffalo Public Schools estimated that fewer than half of the 29,000 students who relied on school breakfasts and lunches were getting help with hunger.

“Food, and how schools fill the need for food, are now more crucial than ever,” said Robert, also director of GSE’s Social Studies Education Programs. “This is an issue of human rights.”

The Seeding Resilience team worked to get food to people, support farms, encourage vegetable gardens and create jobs. Its projects have included a map of grocery distribution points and resource brochures that Robert translated into Spanish.

Her work with community groups, like Seeding Resilience, informs her understanding of policy. Lately, Robert has been thinking about ways to keep the connections strong. “What’s on my mind most these days,” she said, “is how do we use those relationships to transform what matters most to the community?'”

For her, the COVID-19 crisis has underscored the diminishing funding for school food programs, and the need for change. The variety and quality of meals have also been declining as school districts centralize kitchens, and food costs for families and students rise.

Volunteering fosters opportunities to contribute and learn.

Chronicling new directions in practice and policy is the subject of her upcoming and fourth book: tentatively titled “Transforming School Food Politics Around the World.” Robert is co-editing it with Jennifer E. Gaddis, assistant professor of civil society and community studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

As she looks beyond the pandemic, Robert hopes that increased public understanding of the critical role schools play in feeding people will lead to reform and equity. “Schools are food hubs,” she said. “Let’s reprioritize how we spend tax dollars to reflect our societal values – because we do care about feeding our neighbors.”

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