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March 9, 2021

The Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems focuses on innovative ideas and solutions to the many challenges of current food systems. In this series, we’re sitting down with the Swette Center affiliated faculty to catch up on food systems, innovation, and what makes a good meal.

Michael (Mick) Dalrymple

Director of University Sustainability Practices and Senior Sustainability Scientist at the Global Institute of Sustainability and Innovation

How did you get interested in food systems issues?

I’ve always been interested in food just because I love it, but a key part of my journey has been my work in Guatemala where I was exposed to the source of some of our coffee. It was there that I also developed a firsthand understanding about some of the social impacts of our food sourcing. When I went to a very hot and humid region of Guatemala called Zacapa, I saw a lot of produce being grown that was then exported to the US and other countries. I saw a field that looked like it had been picked and the plants were dying off, but there were many watermelons still just sitting out there in the field. I found out that those watermelons did not meet the ideal size and shape for the US market, so they were just left in the field to rot. In the meantime, the only food to buy in the area was at convenience stores. The people that harvest our food and only have the option of buying food from convenience stores are the same people that are told they can’t have the watermelons left over in the field because the grower doesn’t want them reselling their produce. This was a huge indicator to me of how broken the food system is from many dimensions such as social, ecological, and material.

Share a glimpse of your current research and how it applies to food systems transformation. 

Most of my food systems work currently is applied work to help the ASU community implement and support more sustainable food systems for on-campus purposes. As the Director of University Sustainability Practices, an important part of my team’s work is to educate students, faculty, and staff on where food actually comes from and the impact on our health and wellness. This can be seen with the Garden Commons at the Polytechnic campus where students develop skills to grow their own food. We also work with the ASU Arboretum on their date harvest, and with Sun Devil Dining (Aramark) to get more sustainable local food on campus. Not only is Aramark working hard to source more local food for the dining halls, but we want it to be certified as Fair Trade, organic, Seafood Watch, or other sustainable food certifications. We also want to inspire people to eat more of a plant-based diet at the dining halls. 

Aramark continues to impress me with innovative projects. For example, they’ve cut their back-of-house food waste by 40% by implementing a new technology and education program. We are hoping to use community-based social marketing to develop innovations to reduce food waste on the front-of-house too, but it’s been slowed down because of COVID-19. We are doing research in the fall of 2021 on community based social marketing to run pilot programs in the spring. Another exciting concept we are looking into is vertical indoor farming on the Polytechnic campus where a third party vendor could grow the food needed for on-campus dining. It would not only be an operational solution, but also a research and education opportunity. Lastly, we are working on tying food to art and philosophy at the ASU Garden Commons to get people to think about common goods and create a cultural shift in the way people regard food.

What’s an innovation in the food systems world that you’re excited about? 

There are a lot of food system innovations I’m excited about. For starters, I’m excited about vertical indoor farming. I wasn’t a big fan in the beginning because it seemed to me that we’re missing the opportunity to use the sun, but I’ve been convinced that it can be very efficient from a resource standpoint - particularly water, which is a critical resource in our region. I’m also excited about mushrooms and mycelium, and the potential of it not only in the food world but also the packaging and medical world. Fungi is a really underappreciated resource. I’m also interested to an extent about insect protein. I’m hesitant because it makes me wonder if we are just moving to another species that we have even less connection and communication with than the animals we currently eat, so does that somehow make us feel better even though we are still being inhumane? Nonetheless, from a protein and resource efficiency standpoint it’s exciting. I also like some of the innovations in the plant-based food world, although, I’m not sure about plant-based meat since it is highly processed. It is a better alternative than regular meat, but eating closer to nature is much more sustainable. I’m excited that hemp is becoming more widely accepted and used in the United States. I’m also really interested in regenerative agriculture and soil sequestration of carbon. It is a natural process that seems like it has huge potential to store some of the volumes of carbon that we need to remove from the atmosphere.

What’s your go-to weeknight meal?

My go-to weeknight meal is whatever gourmet food that my daughter came up with for that night from videos on the web. A lot of what she cooks is plant-based so I feel good about that, and I feel even better knowing that my daughter made it. She has taught herself to become a really good chef, rooted in sustainability.