Featured Leader: Sarah Rocker, Research Associate at Penn State


In this month’s Featured Leader piece, we speak with Sarah Rocker, a Research Associate at Penn State’s Northeast Regional Center for Rural Development. You may recognize her from her work coordinating the Agricultural Marketing Resource Portal and Support Network for awardees of the Farmers Market and Local Foods Promotions Programs – they also moderate a Discussion Group for grantees on the FSLN! Read on to learn more about Sarah’s journey into food systems work, her vision for the future of the movement, and the wise advice she offers for folks in this work.
According to Sarah, her first leap into food systems began on a small farm in western Washington. However, it became clear that her passion for working the land, producing food, and becoming self-sufficient had been engrained in her bones since long before.
There’s a deep history of tending food in my family, from my mother, to my mother’s mother, to my mother’s mother’s mother, who I still remember picking apples with from her trees and making apple sauce in the garage.
My first passion was foreign languages actually, and I ended up moving to Germany for a year to reclaim my family’s language which had been forgotten ever since they emigrated to the US. It was in Germany where I was first able to see and feel what regional and local food systems were like. I became inspired by all the gardens, local markets and the connection people seemed to have to the production of their food.
In the American food system, we can be so removed from knowing the source of our food. In our country, we were incentivized to build large, efficient systems of processing and distribution, and in many cases we now lack strong ties to our “local” land. Wendell Berry writes about the importance of reestablishing our connections to the land and to a place. There is such wisdom in this, but there are factors that prohibit people from doing that – the socioeconomic gap and disparities means not everyone has the same access to make these choices. This is something I’d like to understand more – food justice and equity work, gentrification and displacement, how people lose and regain connection to place.

Speaking of connections—can you tell us about your work exploring “social infrastructure for place-based regional food systems” at Penn State’s Northeast Regional Center?
My current work focuses on planning and policy strategies to foster connectivity among different actors of the food system in a particular place, and how each of us has a role to play in building local networks.  Some may have more of a 30,000-foot view of the larger system– but I believe whether you’re a buyer, food producer, nonprofit advocate, educator or local planner, we each have something to gain from participating in the connectivity of our communities.
Food systems work is hugely complex, and I think sometimes we construct boundaries around our work to make it ‘bite sized’ and easier to conceptualize; we break off pieces and begin working on that specific piece.
But the truth of it is that “food systems” work is about many overlapping sectors and systems. It extends to health, transportation, urban planning, policy, justice, and many other things that I haven’t had the creativity or experience yet to fully comprehend.

So this critical coordination role can be something that people not directly involved in food systems may take on?
Yes, I think it is broader. It truly is all connected. Perhaps a vision, or to put forth a challenge for us in food systems, is to think about who isn’t yet at the table but should be. And actually, the phrase “at the table” can even be daunting – it makes it seem that we all have to get together in the same place at the same time.
Maybe we need a new metaphor, like a ‘see you at the party’ – where not everyone is having the same large group discussion, but also having 1:1s and small group conversations. Talking with people that we don’t ordinarily work with can be really insightful and bring innovation to our work. I also think there is more to be done to foster conversations with those who are not in our immediate sectors or local networks. Building bridges to non-traditional partners is something that I’d personally like to do better. I invite my food systems colleagues to think creatively and share your ideas around this.

Spoken like a true systems leader and value chain coordinator! Tell me, how did you go from being a small-scale farmer in Washington to an academic exploring social infrastructure and networks at Penn State? What did your journey look like?
The ‘short-long’ answer is that I fell into food systems work about a decade ago through co-operating a small-scale CSA and market farm in western Washington.
The goal of our farm was to be good to the land, our community, our customers and ourselves. We had challenges meeting these goals and I learned that other small farms like ours were also having similar challenges, so we began piloting interventions to see if we could improve our collective situation… we started a farmers market, began a feed and tool sharing cooperative, and reinvigorated other beginning farmers to join our local grange.

A lot of off-farm opportunities were also happening at this time.
There were discussions around food policy councils for our county, so I joined that as a founding member, thinking that more supportive local policy might be the answer. Our county also got a new Extension Director, so I started collaborating with state Extension to investigate why small farmers were having trouble accessing local markets in our region. We also needed new market outlets for our farm, so we attended a state-wide conference in the winter, and by spring launched a farmers market that was an outlet specifically for small and beginning producers. Finally, we had a local farmland trust organization which helped farmers get connected to land opportunities, and we were advocating for that important work, as well.

Okay, wow, that’s a lot of moving parts!
Yeah, I eventually got an off-farm job at the local state college advising a student-led, worker-cooperative restaurant, with the goal of sourcing from local producers and processers as much as possible. The café ended up working with over 40 local vendors, many of which were former graduates of the college’s sustainable agriculture program. Through this, I was able to learn the ins and outs of institutional purchasing from the buyer’s side. During this time, I also went to night school studying for my Master’s in Public Administration with a focus on local food policy. Looking back, I was just trying to learn as much as I could from any part of the food system I had access to.
So, it’s safe to say that you’ve been involved in many different aspects of the food system. And now you have your PhD and are a researcher?
Through all of this, instead of just finding the answer to our own farm’s challenges, we realized that what we were actually discovering were the various facets of our country’s broken food system.
With this knowledge, I went back to school full-time to piece together my own experiences and try to crack the nut of ‘what really makes a thriving community where local producers and consumers are connected and mutually supporting each other in a sustainable way?’
I had a feeling it had to do with connectivity and the social fabric of a place – So the program in Rural Sociology was a natural fit.
It was a hard decision to leave the farm and a really strong community.
On the one hand, it felt like giving up on a dream, but on the other hand, it felt more important to do the ‘connecting the dots’ work and to become more effective at making it possible for other small farms and communities like ours to thrive.
So even though I’m in a research capacity now, I have a level of understanding for individuals in different parts of the food system, because I’ve lived a lot of it. My current work focuses on how to facilitate interaction with diverse individuals in the food system and value chain, knowing that there are common and unique needs for each individual, and figuring out how to translate what others in the system need to thrive.

Given your unique vantage points, and having been involved in food systems work for some time, what is your take on the state of the ‘good food movement’ right now?
I recognize that I only see the parts that I’m working in, but when I speak with colleagues who work in a different region or area of development, I feel inspired by the ways they are creatively working to solve complex problems on a day to day basis. Hearing people’s visions for a more just and sustainable food system, especially in areas that are new to me– it’s very encouraging.
The pulse feels strong and vibrant; I’m positive about the state of the food movement, and the creative individuals who are doing the work.

It’s so special to be able to have peers who fill your cup, inspire you, and build solidarity with! That’s what the FSLN is all about 😉 Are there others in your life that you draw inspiration from?
I’ve had a life-long love of plants, and have been studying the practice of growing and making medicine with herbs for over 10 years. One of my teachers and mentors in herbalism has been a real inspiration to me; her complete courage to trust in her intuition and in the lineage of her teachers – a blended wisdom – is an approach I now take in my own work.
We’re taught a lot of different ways to be in this world. There are so many certifications and schools of thought out there. I take inspiration from my teacher’s unwavering commitment to her healing practice that feels full of authenticity and integrity to not only what she was taught but what she knows at a core level is the best way she can heal in the world.
She has a generosity of spirit that I aim to model my life after.

It’s important for us to honor and respect the history of the teachings but also check in with ourselves about what our own truth is for how we want to participate, show up, and contribute in this world.
I take this approach in my own work – with respect for what has been done before, and also settling in with myself, so that at the end of the day I’m asking if I’m participating authentically and if I’m full of integrity and in alignment with my own personal intuition and purpose.

What a special relationship to have and a beautiful way to show up in this world.
Before we close and get back to changing the world, I have one last question for you. As you think back on your journey up to today, are there any words of encouragement that you’d like offer your fellow food systems leaders?

I believe in the power of visioning to guide the work. I think if we can “see” the system we want to build in our mind’s eye it’s easier to move towards that in the day-to-day work.   I don’t mean just seeing with your physical eyes what is out currently out there, because the world can look pretty grim some days.  I mean being in touch with your personal vision, the one that comes from the gut. This is food work, after all! (sorry, bad pun.) Really though, I would say stay true to your own deep, individual vision for a just and sustainable food system, whatever unique way that looks like for you. That vision is important to bring to the diverse community of practitioners doing this work. When we draw from this type of sight, that of our core vision, I think it will not lead us astray.  
Well said. Thank you so much Sarah for taking the time to tell us more about who you are, your thoughts on the food movement, and for sharing some really wonderful advice. See you at the party!

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