How to Scale Food Justice: A Capstone Project

by |April 3, 2019

By Nick Schiff

Students from Columbia University’s Sustainability Management program recently presented Teens for Food Justice, a nonprofit focused on equitable access to healthy food, with an ambitious report that includes a plan to enhance nearly every aspect of the organization’s operations.

Over the previous months, they had spent hundreds if not thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and authoring the exhaustive document, aiming to convert their previous eleven courses into real-world service.

Their project began when Susanne DesRoches, a Sustainability Management faculty member, approached SUMA ‘13 alum Henry Gordon-Smith with the idea.

Gordon-Smith, who serves on the nonprofit’s board, was immediately interested. “I really care about Teens for Food Justice as an organization and at that time I knew they needed an outside perspective on using agtech [agricultural technology].”

He was particularly focused on assuring that the organization, which works in Title 1 schools training youth to be urban farmers, would be able to most effectively work towards its mission and keep up with the pace of technological change in its industry. “They needed the insight that these students could deliver to make them scalable and to stay well-positioned for funding,” said Gordon-Smith.

The students ran into challenges. At the outset, Katherine Soll, CEO and director of TFFJ, had reason to be skeptical. “We’ve had a lot of volunteer consultants approach our program,” she said. “Those projects involve a tremendous time input on our side and don’t always prove to be fruitful,” she continued. “Time is a valuable resource for us.”

The students faced their own version of the problem: narrowing the scope of their research into several vast fields.

“The trick to a good capstone project outcome is marrying research from  academic literature with what’s happening in practice—and then to analyze all of that to find the best practices that are the right fit for the client,” said DesRoches, who led the project.

Indeed, the report synthesizes a massive trove of information, from investigations of American hunger (“in 2015, 1.25 million New York City residents were food insecure”) to an array of recommendations for their client (“track information from seeding to distribution for each crop”).

In the end, Soll spoke in glowing terms about the team’s work. “I cannot stress their professionalism enough. They took the time to understand our needs and delivered.”

Which recommendations did they implement? “Pretty much all of them,” said Soll. “Right there, during the presentation, we all had a brainstorming session about how to start putting the report to work.”

In the end, Gordon-Smith envisions far-reaching consequences of the report. “Our ultimate goal is to produce results for the at-risk population that the program works with,” he said. “The kids in the program will get the benefit of everything from better safety measures, to learning computer literacy, to an understanding of how to thrive as young professionals” said Gordon-Smith.

“Ultimately, they’re going to eat healthier, be better prepared for the career world, and I would even say we’ll see an impact on the public school system in New York City.”

The M.S. in Sustainability Management, co-sponsored by the Earth Institute and Columbia’s School of Professional Studies, trains students to tackle complex and pressing environmental and managerial challenges. Visit our website to learn more.

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