PBFA’s Member Spotlight series showcases the incredible work of the companies and organizations in our membership and aims to shine a light on the individuals behind the brands and provide a platform for their unique and impactful perspectives and insights.
In this episode, PBFA’s Senior Director of Impact Strategies Sabina Vyas speaks with Samantha Derrick, the Founder and Executive Director of the Plant Futures Initiative, a social venture and 501c3 with a mission to accelerate the transition to a plant-centric food system. Samantha received her Master’s of Public Health from UC Berkeley, and prior to graduate school, worked for a variety of environmental organizations in the US, Mexico, and India. A native Floridian and first-generation Mexican American, Samantha is an avid beach dweller and is inspired by bringing the flavors and health benefits of Mexico’s plant-based cuisine to the world.
In this conversation, Sabina and Sam discuss:
- How her interest in public health and plant-based food systems led to the creation of the Plant Futures Initiative
- The importance of creating a direct talent pipeline between students interested in working in the plant-based sector and companies in need of talent
- Why centering equity and justice are essential tenants of food system transition
- The role food plays in creating and informing culture on a social and personal level
PBFA and the Institute have been lucky enough to benefit from the insights and ideas shared by students participating in the Plant Futures Challenge lab, a program that pairs UC Berkeley students with companies and organizations working on plant-based food system transformation. To learn more about this exciting initiative, listen in!
Learn more about Plant Futures: https://www.plantfuturesinitiative.org/
Sabina Vyas (00:00):
Thank you for joining us. I’m gonna go ahead and start with our first question for today. Sam, can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you entered the food system space and what led to you founding Plant Futures initiative?
Samantha Derrick (00:18):
Yeah, of course. And first of all, thank you so much for having me here. Super grateful to be chatting with you all today and sharing a little bit more about plant features. In my story, I became vegan when I was 12. That’s the moment where my whole life shifted and there were a few things that happened that caused that shift. So first I saw a pita documentary, undercover footage of slaughterhouse that really opened my eyes to what was happening to animals. I couldn’t believe it was real. I remember just breaking down, crying and telling my parents that I was never going to eat animals again. So I really got into it for the animals. That was always my motive. But then a few other things happened. I watched Al Gore’s documentary and Inconvenient Truth and made the connection between climate change and food systems. That was the first time I really started thinking about climate change and the role of food in my life in relation to that.
And then public health too. I made the connection to the health of my community and my family members. My mom’s family immigrated to the US from Mexico and a lot of them after immigrating to Mexico and adapting to a western diet, which is very animal heavy, very process started to suffer with chronic disease over the years most of it diet related. So I also started making the connection between food and the health of my community and everything just kept pointing back to plant-based diet and plant-based nutrition, nutrition as a way to address all of these issues. So I got really excited about that. I knew that wanted, wanted that to be my path and my journey. So when I went to college, I went to uc, Berkeley for undergrad. I knew I wanted to study food systems. I knew I wanted to work in the plant-based sector, but there was nothing at Berkeley.
There were very few resources in food. There wasn’t any major that was tailored around food or food systems. So I did what I thought was the closest thing to that, which was environmental policy and economics. So I studied that in undergrad. And after finishing undergrad and doing a few internships, which were all in the environmental fields, I ended up working in the environmental sector for a few years. It was a mix of wildlife conservation. I worked in India for sustainable design organization for a while. And then I worked in clean tech in San Francisco for a few years. And while I loved all of those jobs, I knew in my heart that I really wanted to work in the plant-based sector. That was always my ultimate goal and dream. So I wanted to go back to grad school to shift my focus and to really focus on food systems.
So when I was researching grad programs, I came across public health. I hadn’t really thought about public health as a field of study before. And I noticed separately had a nutrition focus, a nutrition track within the public health program. And that just seemed like the perfect fit for what I wanted to focus on within food systems because it covered so many different elements that I was interested in studying. So started the public health program at Berkeley and quickly realized that still there was not much at Berkeley on food systems. Even within the public health program, even on the nutrition track, there were very few just classes and resources for students who wanted to work in food systems. There was pretty much nothing at Berkeley on the plant-based food sector, with the exception of the alternative meats lab, which existed. But that was very much tailored more for food science backgrounds, technical backgrounds and students.
And I really wanted to study plant-based food systems more broadly, really systems of view. I wanted to study the policy, the nutrition the plant-based food sector, how quickly it was growing, how we could tie that to business and bridge the gap between business and public health. And there just wasn’t anything, even in my public health classes, we weren’t talking about animal agriculture, plant-based nutrition, which is very upsetting for me and especially in the Bay Area, was one of the food capitals of the world one of the capitals plant-based sector. So that’s really where the plant features journey started. I met Will Rosenweig, who was my professor at the time at uc, Berkeley. And he really encouraged me to start the program or start something at Berkeley focused on plant-based food systems because he said that he had also seen so many students over the years who were looking for that and Berkeley didn’t offer it.
So that’s where it all started. It was a passion project. I was working with Will, he was mentoring me through the process. I was drafting a syllabus of what Berkeley’s first plant-based food program would look like. And one thing led to another. I met Nina Guyman and I met Brittany Sartor who really helped me get this off the ground at Berkeley. We ended up launching the program as a pilot while I was a student. The university accepted it for academic credit at the business school. And we just had a huge success the first year. So many students from different backgrounds joined the program. They were so excited. It was multidisciplinary. We opened it up everything from undergrad to PhD and just seeing how excited and motivated students were to join the program to work in the plant-based sector really was a motivation to keep growing and thinking about what it could look like beyond Berkeley.
What if we grew this into an initiative and started this on other campuses. So I ended up graduating and right after graduating we started the 5 0 1 C three and I transitioned to working on plant features. And right now we’re working on expanding the program to other campuses and internationally as well. We’re looking globally because we we’re seeing that this is really a gap on all campuses and in higher education. There really is just generally a lack of resources for food systems, but specifically the plant-based sector. There really isn’t a single class or program in the world that we’ve come across that really helps equip students and builds that talent pipeline between academia and the plant-based sector. So we’re super excited. We’ve been building the program. It’s been about a year and a half since I’ve graduated and I’ve, the program has grown a lot. We have a full team at the nonprofit. We’re expanding. We have student chapters at 30 universities and we’re super excited for the potential impact it can have as we continue to grow because we’re seeing so much support and excitement from students that we’ve been speaking to.
Sabina Vyas (06:11):
That’s incredible. Sam, I have to commend to you that you saw a gap. You saw that your needs weren’t being met in your program and instead of just being frustrated and continuing, you did something about it. I’m grateful that you had the support that you needed to take it off the ground. And it reminds me a lot about the entrepreneurs in our p BFA community and how a lot of them are frustrated by what they’re not seeing out in the marketplace. And they want to create a solution and they go out and they create a product or initiative that tries to meet that gap. So I find a lot of alignment in what you just said and our members. And so I wanted to ask you what do you think is needed to address or unjust food system and what role do you think companies can play?
Samantha Derrick (06:55):
Yeah, I’ve thought about this a lot, especially now that we work with many companies and businesses in the plant features Challenge lab. And I’m learning more about the role of business in this sector, especially because I don’t come from much of a business background. But for one, I think companies should be supporting and participating in a shift towards accelerating plant centric food systems, whether theyre a vegan or vegetarian company or not. We have partnered with everything from super vegan companies to companies that are not, but they’re starting to make vegan products or offer plant-based products as one of their offerings cuz they see that that’s where the market is going, that there’s consumer interest in that. So I think companies should absolutely be thinking about that. It is, of course offering those products is healthier for communities, it’s better for the environment, it’s better for animals and it’s better for the companies too cause that’s where food is shifting.
So it really is a win-win. I think we support a lot of companies with developing new products, everything from go-to market strategy, who are the consumers we’re reaching, what kind of messaging should we be including in these products? And students have participated in those projects with companies, which has been super awesome to see. I think companies should also be thinking about how they can support local farmers to transition to plant focused farming and really think about the ingredients that they’re sourcing, who the farmers are, the sustainability, the impact of the ingredients, and also just ultimately supporting farmers and operations that are minimizing the use of animals, which are extremely resource intensive. The process, as you know of raising killing animals takes a lot of energy and resources. And I think that they should be thinking about the supply chain and where they’re sourcing from, who the farmers are and what they’re growing.
And like I said, transition, helping farmers transition to plant-based farming so that they’re not losing their jobs or we’re not eliminating from really helping them be part of this transition. And of course, I think companies should be also thinking about the ingredients and farming practice practices that they’re supporting with their products to help restore habitats, local ecosystems, protect biodiversity, reduce greenhouse gas emissions which ultimately is a win for the environment. It translates into better health for communities that live in these areas. Of course, better health for the communities that are eating the products that these businesses are making and better for animals of course. And just ultimately better use of resources, which in the long term is the best, I think, investment that companies can make. And so that’s one, the transition to plant centric food systems. I also think going a little bit deeper into the health aspect, I think providing healthy, nutritious products to consumers in a country where diet related chronic disease is a leading cause of death is absolutely essential.
And I think a lot of companies are overlooking the nutrition and the health of part aspect of products. And I think all companies in the plant-based sector should be thinking about not just making vegan and plant-based products and making healthy, nutritious whole foods products that are ultimately going to help shift public health health of communities. I think these businesses should also be thinking about local indigenous communities and their practices and use of the land, their ideas of health and what we can learn from them and how we can partner with them as well. And it really including them and their business models, especially women and females too, who have been such a huge part of our food system for so long. And oftentimes they’re not in leadership roles in current companies and organizations like helping shift them and include them in our food system too.
I think building local prosperity, supporting community self-determination is super critical and something that all businesses should be thinking about. Partnering with different key partners across the supply chain and really breaking up agricultural monopolies I think is going to be essential for this shift as well. Just so ultimately I think partnering with different parts of supply chain, different partners will just make a more resilient and reliable supply chain that’s going to be necessary for the shift of our food system and also helps protect companies from environmental change or disaster as well as they grow. And then I think businesses should also be thinking about and contributing to principles of regenerative agriculture and ecology too, and sustainable farming practices. And then as part of those sustainable farming practices, thinking about more about the role of farmers the role of labor rights and labor issues in the food system.
I think a lot of the food system of course relies on the work of farmers. I mean they’re holding the food system in this country and they’re often overseeing it in the system and businesses are not often thinking about what they can do to support them in the supply chain as well. And then I also think we should be collaborating more across sectors. And I think businesses have a critical role in making that happen and partnering business policy, big data innovation, the medical community policy and innovation entrepreneurs, we should all be coming together to think about how to collaborate and put our work and our efforts, our skills together to really help support systemic change and really make a difference. So I’ll take a pause there. It’s kind of all over the place. <laugh>.
Sabina Vyas (12:37):
No, I think that’s perfect. I think I really appreciate your comprehensive, holistic response. I think that really aligns with a lot of our values at the Plant-Based Foods Institute and with P bfa. And so as a public health person, I will say I loved your response and answer and I agree with it a hundred percent. And I think that what you are getting at, even with this working across sectors that’s represented so well in the Plant Futures Initiative, you have students, like you said, from different backgrounds that are coming to create solutions for the plant-based foods industry. Shifting gears here, how can Plant Futures support these plant-based food companies that are trying to do a lot of what you just said, they have these values and goals and they wanna make a difference, a positive impact on our food system and create delicious nutritious products for consumers. How can plant features play a role in supporting that and then vice versa? How can companies work to benefit from this?
Samantha Derrick (13:32):
Yeah, absolutely. So first and foremost, we are building one of the first talent pipelines in the world between the plant-based, between academia and the plant-based sector. And this is critical both for students who are looking for jobs and looking to build careers in the field, but more importantly for companies who that are growing very rapidly they are looking for talent, they are looking for the students, the young professionals who are excited, who have the right skills to really help grow and accelerate their work. And a lot of the companies are struggling to find those students and struggling to find that talent. A lot of them struggle with recruitment and it’s because the resources don’t exist. That talent pipeline doesn’t exist. Universities don’t have good resources for students who wanna work at food systems. So companies go to the universities and they don’t have anything to offer them.
So we are really helping support companies by helping them identify that talent, identify those students at universities. Aside from working on the projects and the challenge lab, which I can get more into a little bit we have connected so many students to internships and jobs and opportunities in the plant-based sector who would’ve never, probably would’ve never found these companies if they hadn’t gone through our program. And vice versa, a lot of companies probably wouldn’t have found these students. So it’s super exciting to see just from the impact you’ve had at Berkeley, how many students have landed jobs in this sector and what can happen as we expand this globally. So I think really connecting to the talent is one of the main primary ways that we’re supporting companies. And also the multidisciplinary learning experience that you mentioned. I think we’re helping companies connect to a multidisciplinary set of students who come from public health backgrounds, business nutrition, data science, and it’s been extremely helpful for the companies from the cohorts that we’ve had so far.
And all the companies that we’ve spoken to, they say that has been one of the most valuable parts of the program is getting that multidisciplinary the and experience from students and hearing perspectives from students from different programs at all levels of their education. So we help the companies with scoping innovation projects that are multidisciplinary in nature and students from different backgrounds can contribute to the project. And that’s pretty rare in academia. Students so often work with students from other programs and especially with companies. So to have companies and students from these programs working together is so uncommon cuz companies usually just work with a group of business students or a group of engineering students, but they don’t really get them all disciplinary views. So I think it’s really helping companies think about the role of sustainability, of public health, of nutrition in their challenges in addition to the business aspect, which has been incredibly helpful for them.
And I think it’s also just helping companies and the whole sector diversify the leadership and how we think about food systems and who should be leading them. Of course we need more racial and ethnic representation in food systems, but we also need more representation from different disciplines. We need the public health experts, we need the business experts, we need the nutrition data scientists, the policymakers all working together to solve all of these food systems challenges. So really helping support the growth and the leadership of the industry, making sure that it is representative of different communities, but also of the different challenges that we’re facing in the world and thinking about how we can come together to solve these. And then the Challenge Lab itself, it really is a reciprocal learning experience. We have received feedback from mentors and students that they’re learning, the mentors are learning as much from the students and students are learning from the mentors.
And it’s been so awesome to see that experience that students have had in the class and the mentors that they’re able to share, the mentors are able to share their expertise with students and the students are able to share their perspectives at different varying levels of their education. A lot of times, one example is a group of students, younger undergrad students worked with a company that was trying to reach Gen Z consumers and they were just perfect because they were the target audience. They were trying to reach the students, gave them a social media strategy, ideas on how to message products. And the company said it was, I mean, they took the students work and implemented it into their marketing strategy. So it was so cool to see that happen. And that’s just one of many examples where we see that reciprocal learning experience play out.
And I think having the different generations working together too is so awesome. We’ve had teams with undergrad, grad students, PhDs, and then experts from industry. And I think putting the skills of different generations together is also so critical as we solve food systems’ challenges getting the skills of the experts who’ve been in the sector for so long, and then the ideas and the perspective of students in academia who are exposed to new technologies and innovations that they can break forward as part of the solutions as well. And then I think more than anything are helping students and professionals get excited to work for these businesses and these companies and to work in this sector. I think if we don’t, we absolutely need the next generation to want to work in sector to get excited, to really help us transform. Cuz if we don’t get the students the unprofessionals excited, we’re gonna be facing a lot of problems.
If we don’t have enough people working in this shift and for the amount of problems that we’re facing, we’re going to need a lot of talent and a lot of students and professionals transitioning to these jobs. And that’s why I think it’s so critical for universities to be providing resources to students at this point in their life when they’re making these decisions about these careers to help get them excited to work in the sector, to work for these businesses and these companies. So we’re really doing as much as we can to support companies in that way as well. And to really even just bring awareness to what’s happening. A lot of students don’t even know that these jobs exist or these companies exist. So we’re really helping fill that gap.
Sabina Vyas (19:24):
And BFA has been involved with the Challenge Lab from the very beginning, but I think for the listeners, Sam, if you could break down what the CH Challenge Lab is exactly, if you could break it down into an quick overview of how it works, I think that would be really helpful.
Samantha Derrick (19:40):
Yeah, absolutely. The Challenge Lab is an applied innovative learning experience for students where they get an opportunity to work directly with a company or organization from the plant-based food or ag sector on an innovation challenge. And the innovation challenge is some sort of exploratory question or challenge that the organization or company is facing and it’s multidisciplinary. So we work with the company ahead of the class to shape a challenge that students from different backgrounds can contribute to. And students then work with the mentor from that company for the span of the 14 week semester to solve that challenge and prevent a deliverable to the company at the end of the semester. So we’ve had everything from CPG, policy Venture, a whole bunch of companies including plant-based food association partner with us. And we’ve had students from many different backgrounds. We’ve had over 70 students in a challenge lab at this point and over 30 professional partners that we’ve partnered with.
And it’s been super awesome to see the students create something that’s valuable to the companies that they go back and integrate into their work but also something that helps students develop their skills through the span of semester. I mean, they get real exposure, real, they’re solving real world challenges, which is very uncommon in academia, very, especially my public health program was very theory focused. I didn’t really get much applied learning, especially multidisciplinary learning. So really shaping a program that’s helpful. Students are working on practical skills where they get to work with students from other programs where they get to work directly with mentors from industry. And ultimately the longer term goal is to really build that type pipeline. And every student who comes outta that class, we hope that they’ll continue on to work and apply those skills either to their future jobs or land internships and jobs in the sector.
Sabina Vyas (21:25):
It’s been an amazing experience to work with Plant Futures Initiative and the Challenge Lab. We’ve had a very different projects over, this is our third time around and we’ve went from focusing on agriculture to ESG and LCA work with the environment and now on a communications project with the teams. And one thing that has stood out to me is that we keep mentioning this, but the multidisciplinary aspect of the perspectives of the students has been incredibly valued. The questions that they ask are always spot on and always make the work better. So I think with every single project we’ve seen that. And then beyond that, I think the output of what they contribute has been just incredible to see is that you have this vision of what you’re hoping to get out of the project and then it’s always been better. I’ve really enjoyed working with the students and one thing is that they’re all whip smart and <laugh> your point about the difference in the age groups as well as their background has really made the work meaningful and enjoyable.
And I think our companies would really benefit from exploring this as an option. Like you said, recruitment is tough, but to know that these group of students exist to dive into learning more about the plant-based foods industry and play a role in that, I think that it shines through when you are talking to them, they’re really curious and they wanna learn more. And a lot of them come with perspectives already from their own experiences that I think will make our member companies and the industry at large better for working with this group. And like you said, develop the pipeline. We benefited from having one of the students work with us over the summer as a summer consultant and she was amazing and we’re still utilizing all the outputs that she was able to provide in her perspective. And she’s one student amongst all these other amazing students.
So definitely encourage our members and the industry to check out if they can get involved with the Challenge Lab. When one, kind of switching gears and thinking about a recent experience that you and I had, Sam, where you invited me to speak at a public health course at uc, Berkeley, really honing in on how plant-based foods can be a solution to public health. One thing I learned from that experience that I didn’t know before was that you have really married your passion for plant based with your heritage from the Latin A community. And this has shined through with your work with Plant futures and beyond. And so I would love to hear a little bit about how you address, you mentioned this a little bit before, that your own family has been impacted by adopting more of a westernized diet and that how plant-based foods has played a role in your own family. How do you marry the two of that in your work and how can we learn a little bit more about how culture is such an important role in the work that we’re doing in the plant-based weed industry?
Samantha Derrick (24:28):
Yeah, for one, well, this is the question I think about all the time, especially more recently, that transition to Mexico City. And I’m seeing a lot of the food systems issues here, which are pretty different from the ones in the United States. There is some overlap, but you see a lot of the health issues in Mexico as much as you see them in the Mexican American communities in the us. And so many of them go back to food and what we’re eating, what people are eating in Mexico and in Mexican Americans in the us, very, very animal centric diet, a lot of animal products, a lot of processed food, fried foods. I, it really is a health crisis and I think there is so much plant-based nutrition can do to transform the health of these communities. And what’s exciting is that there is a very quickly growing sector of the plant-based sectors growing so rapidly in Mexico Mexico City in particular.
I see, I’ve seen more plant-based restaurants, cafes, even vegan supermarkets in Mexico City than I’ve ever seen in California. I really think this is the vegan capital of the world and I think this has been a research shift. So it’s very quickly growing. But similarly in Mexico and Latin America from the research I’ve done, they don’t have many, many resources to support students at university campuses who wanna work in this sector. So one thing we’re actually doing at Plant Features is thinking of expanding to Mexico, starting plant features, chapters, adopting our curriculum here. We would work with local challenge lab partners, work with local Mexican universities, and this would kind of be our pilot program. As we think about expanding globally, we’re we’re hoping to launch a pilot program next year in Mexico. And then the longer term vision would be to expand globally all over the world.
But so as we expand to Mexico, we are thinking about how we adapt our curriculum to make it more culturally relevant to other parts of the world. How to recruit and activate, how to recruit professional partners from different regions of the world. I think it’s the cultural relevance is absolutely critical. We want students working with companies that are making culturally relevant products in the plant-based sector. And then we also want to activate the student community in different parts of the world. So as we expand globally and expand to Latin America, those are the three pieces we’re working on right now is curriculum, student, community, professional, community. And the longer term vision would be to have that different regions of the world. So I’m super excited to expand to Mexico, especially because Mexico is one of the countries in one of the leading they have leading rates of diet related chronic disease and deaths that ties back to the diet and a lot of it is our proximity to the US and so many products and so much of us culture has come into Mexico and change of food system and you see the health of communities going down because we’ve adopted such high rates of, or high quantities and high volumes of animal products and processed foods over the years.
Sabina Vyas (27:31):
Yeah, I think that I’m excited that you are expanding in Mexico and I’m looking forward to hearing how the pilot goes. You mentioned that companies can do more around creating more culturally relevant product in the plant-based food sector. How else do you think that the plant-based food community and our companies can better support the Latin a community?
Samantha Derrick (27:52):
Yeah, absolutely. I think that’s a great question. And again, it’s something I’m always thinking about it. I think culturally relevant products are very necessary people. If we we’re only making beyond burgers, we’re not going to reach all parts of the world with that. We have to think about what people are eating local communities in different regions of the world. But I also think cost and accessibility is huge and it’s a huge barrier for people adopting a lot of these diets and products. Until we make the products more affordable and we won’t be able to reach all communities most people here are not going to be able to afford the cost of vegan cheese, vegan milks. I think they are, the cost of course is going down over time, but it still is, a lot of them are still pretty expensive for most consumers. So we have to think about really supporting food justice and equity by thinking about the role of cost and accessibility and who the audiences are that we’re actually reading if that we’re actually reaching, if we want to reach lower income communities I think we should also be supporting access to education and increasing minimum wage as a part of this effort.
I think we have to think of the whole system and the reasons why people can’t afford plant-based food. Not only making the products more accessible, but really thinking about what we need to do to support these communities that they can purchase these foods. And a lot of it all intersects with education, minimum wage, labor issues. And I think we should be thinking more of a sector about how we can support those policy shifts as well. I think culinary literacy is huge and thinking about the role of Whole Foods plant-based cooking. Of course the cheapest meals in the world are vegan, staples, beans, rice, legumes, grains, fruits and vegetables. And I think if we can support education such, the Teaching Kitchen Collaborative is a great organization that’s doing some of that work and thinking of the role of cooking in people’s lives, how we can teach them to make cheap, affordable plant-based meals with the simplest ingredients on the planet.
I think it would be essential, especially in a world where a lot of people don’t have time and we’re working a lot, we have very tight schedules, thinking about how to quick meal prep and make quick healthy meals I think is important. And finally, I think supporting, we should definitely be supporting more support for Latin a entrepreneurs and leaders. Females and Latinos are hugely underrepresented in the plant-based sector especially in leadership roles. And the irony, as I was saying earlier, is that a lot of our farmers are Latino or come from Latin backgrounds, they’re underpaid and they’re, they’re exposed to a lot of toxic chemicals in the field and pesticides, but they’re holding our entire FU together. I mean, they’re the reason we’re able to eat every day. And it is ironic that this community doesn’t have representation in leadership in the plant-based sector and in food systems as a whole. So I think we should be doing everything we can as a sector to support farmers to participate in labor rights issues and conversations. And more than anything, support entrepreneurs and Latin community to really help them get exposure and leadership roles in the sector.
Sabina Vyas (31:11):
That’s beautiful. Again, very comprehensive. And I well thought out to the different aspects of our food system and what can be done recently on the heels of Hispanic Heritage Month, and that’s supporting Latin a businesses, the farmers who are growing our foods. And that’s something we should be doing every month. Of course, like you said, to build cultural awareness. There probably needs to be more education even here in the United States on what that looks like. We just had the Los Mors and that was celebrated. I know, especially in Mexico City where you now live. How would you say food plays a role in a holiday like that and how can we share some of this experience with our listeners today?
Samantha Derrick (31:54):
Yeah, food is a big part of pretty much every holiday in Mexico and even day to day life here. My life really revolves around food in Mexico, which is one reason I love living here. For one, and particularly in relation to Day of the Dead. It is of course a beautiful celebration of life that Mexico has. And of course food and especially plants represents life. It represents abundance, prosperity, it brings us energy, it brings us joy and it keeps us alive. So as we have the celebration of life and remembering the life of those who are not with us anymore, food is a big part of that tradition. So we bring food, we share it with each other, but my mom who grew up in Mexico and had more experience celebrating day the day to Mexico, Mexico told me that where she lived in Mexico, they would act.
There was actually a big tradition around eating fresh sugar cane on Day of the Dead. And they would have these huge sugar cane socks and eat them. And that was something they would look forward to every year. And she said that it’s actually very regional, different states in Mexico, different celebrate different days, and they have different foods specific to that region. Some states are more, they’ll have more celebrations with flowers or with candles. So it is very regional. But overall, I think food is a way to celebrate that life because food brings us life and to celebrate the life of those who are not with us anymore. And unfortunately, I did Ms. Day of the Deadest year in Mexico, but even, I mean beyond Day of the Dead, like I said, food is such an integral part of life here. And I think people and the culture here seems a lot more connected to food and just more mindful with eating. People take pauses and breaks to eat meals, people share meals with each other. People have a much deeper understanding of the land and know the farmers that the food comes from. And I absolutely love that about so many cultures in the world. And that’s something I really, really appreciate about living here.
Sabina Vyas (33:48):
So beautiful. Thank you for sharing that with us. It makes me think that while there has been so much Western influence on the Mexican food culture as well and has led to dietary impact and chronic disease impact, that there’s still so much sacred community being shared through food that still exists. And so I loved hearing about that in the different regions and how the Day of the Dead is celebrated in Mexico. And so as we now think about closing our conversation today, what is one or few takeaways you’d want the listeners to end today with?
Samantha Derrick (34:24):
Yeah, I would say the first is that we absolutely have to support the emerging generation of food systems leaders. I mean, they give me so much hope and excitement working with ’em in my program and seeing how excited students are to change a future and to change the planet. And they really are the ones who are going to help us support the shift and lead the future of food systems. So I think we need to think about creating the job opportunities, creating the networks for them, the resources, creating spaces for them to share and exchange ideas. If we don’t equip them to tackle the biggest challenges our world is facing, like climate change a lot of these public health, chronic disease issues, the consequences are going to be very severe. And I really think that students and professionals hold the key to transforming food systems.
And if we don’t give them what they need and the resources that they need to support them at in schools and their communities and universities we’re gonna have a lot of challenges. So I am very, very hopeful that we can get this next generation excited and that there are ways to support them. And that’s one thing we’re trying our best to do in our program, is given them those resources, those tools in the networks. I think we can’t about the role of students young in this movement and this field because they really are a feature. And then I think the second takeaway would be, I really think the public health field needs to be talking more about plant-based diet, plant-based eating and animal agriculture. I was, like I said, I was shocked at how little discussion there was about that in my public health program at Berkeley, which is one of the more progressive universities in the country.
And there was just such little discussion. I was pretty surprised. That seems to be a gap in the public health field in general across all universities, just the whole sector. There is a lack of information discussion around how transformative plant-based eating can be for public health. I really think is what is one of the strongest levers we have for transforming public health. And there’s just huge potential to transform the health of our communities to help address social justice and social equity by bringing plant-based eating and making plant-based food more accessible to all communities. And I really think that we can’t, this field in particular, we can’t call ourselves public health advocates for not advocating for plant-based diets. And if we’re not talking about animal agriculture in relation to public health, it’s like we’re missing a huge piece of the puzzle. So that would be my second takeaway just given my personal experience work being in public health are going through a public health program myself.
Sabina Vyas (37:13):
Excellent. And I think that if our listeners now have that been so inspired by what you shared today, how can they find you, Sam, and how can they learn about engaging in the Challenge Lab?
Samantha Derrick (37:22):
Yeah, I would love to connect with anyone who’s interested in collaborating with us. We are always, like I said, looking for professional partners for a challenge job. We’re looking to expand to new universities. If you’re a student, we’re always looking for guest speakers. There are so many ways to be involved with what we’re doing. So please feel free to reach out to me. My email is samantha plant futures initiative.org. Our website is plant futures initiative.org. We have social media channels but I would say the easiest way is probably to email me on our website. We do have application forms specifically for professional partners as well that you can fill out. And I would encourage you to subscribe to our newsletter on our website as well. When you go into our website, you’ll get a popup to subscribe to the newsletter. That’s the easiest way to keep track of what we’re doing.
The programming we’re gonna be offering anything relevant to the updates in our program as it grows, are in that newsletter, that monthly newsletter that we send out. So I definitely encourage you to check that out as well. Subscribe to that. And yeah, also just wanted to thank you for giving this opportunity and allowing me to share more about my story and what we’re doing at Plant Features. I really admire the work of the plant-based food Associa. Say that again. I really admire the work of the Plant-Based Food Association and what you all are doing, and this is the type of orientation that I would’ve wanted to work for after graduating if I wasn’t working on plant futures. So super grateful to partner with you all in our program and I really appreciate you all supporting us from the beginning.
Sabina Vyas (38:50):
Thank you, Sam. It’s been a pleasure to work with you. I’m so incredibly proud of all the work that you’ve done and the community that you’ve built and wish you all the best. Thank you for being with us today.
Samantha Derrick (39:01): Thank you so much for having.