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Pathways: Profiles of Local Food Systems Changemakers

Catherine Van Dyke, Program Manager, The SF Market

The Berkeley alum walks us through the wholesale produce market and talks food systems career advice.

By Melissa Cervantes, Isabel Martin, and Olivia Rounsaville

How did you get started in a career in food systems?

Catherine Van Dyke: As a student at UC Berkeley,  I took Kathryn De Master’s course “Sociology and Political Ecology of Agri Food Systems.” I remember thinking, “This is really the kind of work I want to do.” It was the first time that my eyes were opened to the path that food takes to get to my plate. I did a number of internships and ultimately found my first job as a load processor at California FarmLink, which was really intimidating at first because I didn’t feel that I had the financial skills to work on a loan team. But I had taken classes at Berkeley related to political economy and economics, so I felt somewhat comfortable working with numbers. Coming in, I was ready to listen and to learn, which helped me in the long run because I think I was able to grow a lot in the position and think more critically about myself, my role in the food system, and how my career can broaden to support what I think good food systems look like.

What perspective of the food system did the job at FarmLink give you?

Van Dyke: Two major barriers to success for farmers are access to capital and access to land. And Farmlink really works to meet both of those needs with a land linking service and lease developments. So many people have handshake agreements, but then a water pipe bursts and then, “Whose job is it to fix it?” They’re doing a lot of important business education. On the loan side of things, they are making loans to growers who can’t work with traditional banks. I really enjoyed working on the loan team and getting to learn more about the business needs of growers with the economic realities of being a small or midsize grower in California and the suite of financial resources that are or are not available to them on the state, federal, and nonprofit level.

What inspired you to go back to school to get your master’s in energy and resources?

Van Dyke: I wanted a deeper understanding of what was happening with natural resources, particularly the hydrologic cycles of droughts and floods that were impacting growers and how these growers are responding. That’s how I came to the Energy and Resources Group (ERG) at Berkeley. As an interdisciplinary program, ERG allowed me to continue my social science work with an economic focus, while pairing it with classes on hydrology in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and working with a much wider set of people. The energy-food-water nexus is already important and will be increasingly important, especially as California’s water becomes scarcer. 

How have your experiences working directly with farmers impacted your perspective on the food system and inform your work at the SF Market?

Van Dyke: I have a greater respect for where the cost of food comes from because it’s really expensive to do business in California, especially in the contemporary context. Not only are our costs of inputs really high but our business environment is such that it’s really hard to be a business owner. And I have so much respect and gratitude for people who are doing farming and food systems work, which helps me pay a higher dollar or have empathy for why things are expensive. And, think more critically about how food is coming to my plate and what kind of systems I’m trying to support.

What kind of model can the SF Market play for organizations in other parts of the country that are working on market access for farmers and other small businesses?

Van Dyke: Wholesale markets play an important role in food access all throughout the world. I think where the SF Market is really a leader is in our food recovery. We’re working with the city for food recovery and playing an important role in helping all the merchants here donate produce and be compliant with SB 1383, which requires businesses in California of this size and type to donate food that’s still good to eat. We’re really unique in the country for having all of that on site, in house, and at no charge to the merchants or to the community partners we are working with. We’re lucky that the City of San Francisco has played a large role in funding that work through their Department of the Environment.

What suggestions do you have for current students exploring careers in your sector of the food system?

Van Dyke: The two biggest pieces of advice I can give  are,  hone your writing skills and learn to speak Spanish. California’s agricultural industry includes people from a lot of different language groups. Being able to speak Spanish has really supported my success in this job — both in being able to communicate effectively and respectfully with businesses that are here at the market and with the farmers who grow the produce.Having good writing skills is also really important. In this role, I do a good amount of grant reporting and grant applications. Even in getting my resumé to stand out, being able to write and convey why I’m passionate about this work and why I’m the right fit is really important.

What inspires you to continue doing this work?

Van Dyke: I really think this work is incredibly important. Not only because every person eats every day, but also because food serves as a microcosm of so many important social questions — questions about our natural resource management, about equity, about access. I want to continue doing this kind of work so I can keep contributing to the kind of food system that I hope to see, where there’s responsible resource management that’s aligned with healthy, sustainable livelihoods for the people who are involved in it.

“Pathways: Profiles of Local Food Systems Changemakers” is a project of BFI’s Food Systems Career Development Program, funded in part by the USDA Transition to Organic Partnership Program (TOPP). Aligned with TOPP, BFI focuses on workforce development in the areas of values-based supply chains and technical assistance for farmers in the organic industry.