"Transparency," she says, forms the basis for much of her food systems work.

"We learn in the conflicts," she explains.

Amanda Chu - Featured Food Systems Innovator

The social fabric undergirding our food systems is woven by people from all sectors of American society: business, nonprofit and government. Amanda Chu of Green Bay, Wisconsin, is that rare food systems professional who capably contributes threads from all three.

As an entrepreneur, Amanda runs a one-woman business that conducts farm-practice auditing and consulting. As a nonprofit activist, she is steeped in leadership work with a variety of organizations. And, as a newly elected government official, Amanda is County Supervisor for District 3 in Brown County, a position to which she says she applies her good food lens whenever possible.

"Transparency," she says, forms the basis for much of her food systems work. "We learn in the conflicts," she explains.

Amanda started doing farm-practice inspections just a few years ago as a service to farmers market managers. "When there's a question about a vendor's practice," she explains, "fellow vendors and attendees start to lose trust and question the integrity of the whole market." Amanda has a decade of experience working at farms of all scales, including her own small-scale, diversified operation. "I've seen a lot of different growing practices," she notes. For her, it's not about advocating one practice over another. Rather, she provides third-party, verified records from which market managers, customers, and farmers can make more informed decisions.

As a woman of color, Amanda says she knows that unfounded apprehension can arise among vendors because of discrimination, including unconscious bias. She's seen local farmers of Hmong origin encounter suspicion from fellow vendors and customers, perhaps because of language barriers. She hopes her work as an auditor helps level the playing field with record keeping and facts.

When her audits do uncover evidence of disconnect her audits help market managers make tough decisions. "There's a sigh of relief when tensions are resolved," Amanda notes.

Amanda began her journey into food systems work in 2005. As an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin-Stephens Point, she majored in Health Promotions and Wellness. During an Ecology of Foods class, she quickly made the mental connections between agricultural practices, environmental concerns, and health. "An explosion happened inside my heart," she says. Professors who introduced her to the intersections of food, ecology and wellness were "speaking a language that finally made sense to me."

Amanda's work managing an organic, urban farm for the Sustainable Food and Agriculture program at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College led her to non-profit involvement. Amanda soon found herself involved with multiple, like-minded organizations, and, in some cases, took the lead. Amanda remains the lead coordinator for NEW Food Forum, a collaboration of regional food stakeholders who are organizing to strengthen their local food system, through policy development. In that role, Amanda is currently spearheading a local food charter development process. The organization also serves as a platform to surface pertinent food issues in Amanda's community, like tracking and analyzing real-time data to understand why a local food access program for seniors has been so successful, despite the constraints of COVID-19.

As a board member for the SLO Farmers Cooperative, she helps local, organic producers get their produce and meat to local eaters through direct, retail and wholesale marketing channels. Her board work with The Farmory is focused on a campaign to convert an empty armory building into a 20,000 square foot indoor farm powered by fish and grow lights. Amanda is also a former board member for New Leaf Food where she was steeped in food access initiatives, and where her understanding of food insecurity as a symptom of housing issues and homelessness took root.

Since her election as a county official this April, Amanda plans to launch a food mapping project of the seven-county area - located at the mouth of the Fox River - that feeds Brown County residents. "This is an opportunity to create local food policy and address local food issues that just haven't been addressed yet," she says.

On top of all this, Amanda is a mother of three little ones who is also finishing up an MBA, with a concentration in supply chain management, at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside. She gets lots of support from her "super-dedicated partner."

"It's a very spicy life," she laughs.

Despite 15 years of food systems experiences and milestones, Amanda notes that finding the confidence to do this work has perhaps been her biggest challenge. As a multi-racial, multi-ethnic woman who grew up in Texas, she says, "you don't want to stand out. You're taught in the South to be quiet and just get the work done." It's an inhibition, she agrees, that likely plagues a lot of women in a profession that tends to be female led.

Reflecting on that path that her life has taken, Amanda sees her early exposure to her family's diverse cuisines and food culture as planting the seeds for a life focused on food. She finds deep satisfaction in sharing these food traditions with the next generation. "We still celebrate large life milestones with luaus, autumn with sauerkraut, winter with tamales and day-old rice with a fresh pan of fried rice."

As her food systems perspective evolves, Amanda says, logistics, supply chains, and performance metrics are in her future, but she also strives to balance the math and analysis with equity and justice. "There are people involved in this," she emphasizes.

Author: Kim Hines | November 24, 2020