Food policy and sustainability leadership 2021/2022 cohort

Kathleen Merrigan

To create the inclusive, diverse and resilient food systems of the future, we need bold and knowledgeable change agents to transform public policy.

We are thrilled to announce Arizona State University’s Food Policy & Sustainability Leadership 2021-2022 class. With a commitment to shaping food and farm policy in the public interest, this cohort of leaders hail from across the country including Arizona, North Carolina, Kansas City, Oklahoma, Wisconsin, New Jersey, Colorado, Minnesota, Vermont, Missouri, Ohio, and Montana.

These rising stars represent business, nonprofit, and academia, modeling the community necessary for food system transformation. They’re passionate about reducing food waste, regenerative agriculture, and climate resistant agriculture. They’re dedicated to school food reform and food sovereignty.

They are the future of food.

Meet the Leaders:

Keith Arnold

Keith was born in Anaheim, CA and grew up in Los Angeles County. He attended Cal Poly Pomona, where he met his wife, Yolanda. Married for over ten years, they now have three kids and own two homes (looking for at least five properties globally). His undergrad is in food science. His work experience includes: 5+ years in retail and 9+ years in food manufacturing in quality assurance before transitioning to the Air Force Reserve with an interest in financial planning. He hopes to become a Director in QA or once again become a plant manager. Recently, Keith moved from Northern California to North Carolina. He’ll be switching roles with his wife and be at home with the family and studying for SFS as well as looking to become commissioned in the Reserves or Air National Guard; and hopefully become licensed in securities by year’s end. He seeks to design at least another home from the ground up with all the fixin’s and incorporate some earthship-permaculture-vertical farm-building-native american farming techniques.

Nicholas Benard

Nick’s passion has always been to better understand food and the culture and history behind it, which has been a continuous work of education and discovery. After graduating from Penn State, he worked in purchasing for a specialty food and cheese importer for almost nine years. While there he became fascinated with traditional foodways, which brought him to stage at butcher shops in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin and learn on-farm slaughter and seam butchery from Christoph Wiesner, President of the Austrian Mangalitza Pig Breeders Union. In 2014, he began to work in professional kitchens, specializing in butchery, charcuterie, and inventory management. Over the years he built several long-standing relationships with local farmers and ranchers, which led to Nick delivering on-farm workshops on topics including raw-milk cheesemaking and whole hog butchery. He lives in Glendale, Arizona, with his wife, daughter, and two dogs. In his free time he likes to tend to their small backyard food forest.

Zac DeJovine

Zac is a local graduate of ASU, having studied Political Science during his time there as an undergrad. In addition to this conventional university education, Zac was also diagnosed as diabetic his freshman year at school. In some ways this personal health experience was as educational as his classroom experience, and helped to lead him down the path he is now currently interested in, that of the connection between politics, sustainable economics and the impact of food and housing on these systems.  He believes that in a system where people inadvertently vote with their dollar for their own environmental destruction, economic choices that are truly sustainable must give people a way out of contributing to climate change. He currently works as a math and Spanish tutor, y está completando su certificación para ser maestro de español. When not reading about dirt, he enjoys running in his EarthRunner sandals and befriending every dog he meets.

Jillian Dy

Jillian is a former vegetable farmer and good food advocate working to reorient the food system toward transparency and sustainability. As Policy Specialist at FoodCorps, Jillian supports partners and leads projects to build the case for federal policy reform that will strengthen local and regional food systems, support farm to school procurement, and create more equity in child nutrition programs. Prior to FoodCorps, Jillian was Deputy Director at The Common Market Mid-Atlantic, a nonprofit food hub that creates wholesale market opportunities for sustainable family farms while increasing healthy food access through institutional procurement. Her efforts leading the Mid-Atlantic outreach team resulted in $15.5 million of local food sales from over 100 small and mid-scale farms. Jillian is a Senior Fellow of the Environmental Leadership Program and a 2020 finalist for NYC Food Policy’s 40 under 40.

Ami Freeberg

Ami Freeberg works for Cultivate Kansas City, a nonprofit working to grow food, farms, and community in support of a sustainable and healthy local food system for all. She began her career with Cultivate Kansas City in 2010, working for seven years in communications, outreach, and community engagement. After four years away, she is excited to rejoin the team this year as the Program Manager for Metro Farms & Food Systems. In this role, she works with farms and food projects to help grow Kansas City’s local food system through providing technical assistance, training, networking and support services, as well as collaborating on local food policy efforts. In her years away from Cultivate Kansas City, Ami has worked in community development and environmental nonprofit organizations, exploring the intersections of her passions. In her free time, Ami runs Longfellow Farm, an urban farm where neighbors work together to grow food and build community. Ami graduated from Grinnell College in Grinnell, Iowa with a degree in Sociology and Global Development Studies. 

John Gifford

John Gifford is a travel and conservation photographer & writer based in Oklahoma City. He works to capture stories, both visual and written, that foster a greater understanding and appreciation of the natural world.

He’s the author of seven books, including Red Dirt Country, a literary meditation celebrating the Oklahoma landscape and the rich biodiversity of the southern Great Plains, and Pecan America, immersion reporting on the industry, ecology, and culture of America’s indigenous tree nut. His essays have appeared in Big Sky Journal, Southwest Review, The Atlantic, and have been cited in The Best American Essays and The Best American Sports Writing.

John serves on the board of directors for the WildCare Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to wildlife rehabilitation, and public education and outreach. Also, he is a board member and the resident photographer for Southern Plains Productions, the Oklahoma City theatre company championing early-career artists and accessibility in the performing arts.

Shelby Kaplan

Shelby recently graduated from the University of Wisconsin Madison with a degree in plant pathology and a minor in food systems. She is originally from New York, but does not have a background in agriculture. Wisconsin introduced her to organic agriculture and its importance. Shelby’s interest continued as she worked in research labs focusing on plant diseases in major crops produced. In her classes she kept coming back to agricultural policy issues. To her, this is how to make the largest difference. After graduating she was able to support the Organic Farming Research Foundation as an intern and hopes to continue working to improve our food systems.

Stephanie Lip 

After graduating from Johnson & Wales University with a degree in Culinary Arts & Nutrition, Stephanie moved to Arizona to serve as an inaugural service member with FoodCorps in 2011. Her year of service opened her eyes to the realities of the nation’s flawed food system, including the industry of school food. Having primarily worked in restaurants and back-of-the-house roles, Stephanie redirected her experiences to improving service to students in schools. Since then, Stephanie has worked with several school districts in various roles, including Supervisor with Monterey Peninsula Unified School District, Cafeteria Chef with Brigaid and New London Public Schools, and currently Nutrition Director with Pacific Grove Unified School District, where she oversees the preparation, execution, and service of USDA-compliant meals. In her spare time, you’d likely find Stephanie with food – she enjoys growing, cooking, eating, reading about, and watching anything food related. You would also find her French Bulldog, Yuba, inches away snoring in the background.

Abigail Martone-Richards

Originally from Long Island, NY, Abigail now resides in Jersey City, NJ where she works with her local Farmer’s Market on food accessibility initiatives, specifically focused on increasing SNAP users at the market. Abigail is passionate about fighting food and nutrition insecurity in her area and connecting urban residents with fresh, sustainably-grown food. Abigail comes from a large family of New England farmers and is looking forward to learning more about sustainable agriculture. Abigail holds a B.A. from Belmont University in Nashville, TN and is the Director of Product Compliance at WeWork. 

Mary Mik

Mary is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist who lives in Lone Tree, Colorado. She currently is a Class Instructor for Slow Food Denver where she teaches middle school students about local food systems through hands-on cooking and gardening workshops. A graduate of Syracuse University, Mary was a Remembrance Scholar—one of the highest honors at the university—to fulfill the mission of “Looking Back, Acting Forward” in memory of the 35 students who perished in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103. She was also Western Area Massachusetts Dietetic Association scholarship recipient for articulating how she aims to shift the field of dietetics to one that focuses on sustainable food systems rather than simply treatment of disease. In her free time, you can find Mary reading, hiking, dancing, and trying new cuisines around Denver.

Jason Pena

Jason is a senior sourcing manager for a large CPG company.  His position is to ensure that the products his company requires for its customers are cost competitive and sustainably sourced. Jason  achieves this through Request For Proposal and New Product Development activities as well as attending Food conventions where new startups and other companies discuss their opportunities for recycling, upcycling, waste reduction, land resource management and certified minority owned businesses. 

Jason has a strong passion to develop a robust strategic sustainable sourcing platform for his company’s customers and to promote a healthier planet. He believes that the education and connections he receives from the Masters of Sustainable Food Systems degree at ASU will help him develop this program in a way that is supported by educational and policy research. Jason resides in Missouri with his wife and two daughters. He enjoys traveling and experiencing new culinary craftsmanship.

Allison Perkins

Sustainable foods are a passion of Allison’s that have become a lifestyle. She currently has her associates degree in Sustainable Food Systems which she received through Rio Salado Community College. She worked in the Garden at Rio for almost 4 years becoming head gardener during her time where she produced food for the café on campus. She was lucky enough to maintain her position throughout the pandemic and increase saved seeds for the college by 25 percent. In December of 2020, Allison received her bachelor’s in sustainability, with emphasis on sustainable urban dynamics and a minor in urban planning through Arizona State University. Her biggest goal is to motivate others about sustainability with the knowledge she acquired from her learnings.  She practices what she has learned so far, one major practice being composting. It has been 5 years since the last time she wasted food scraps at her house and she now has an unlimited supply of compost for her garden. Seeing her family get involved and be a part of her goal is a huge incentive for her and a stepping stone towards her goal. Raising her six-year-old son while attending Arizona State University is her biggest challenge but also her biggest inspiration. Being a mother has helped her practice patience and creativity which in the end loops back around to her focus on sustainability.

Laurel Rose

Laurel is a 7th generation farmer and herbalist from the Appalachian Foothills of Southeastern Ohio. She earned her BA from Arizona State University and belonged to the first graduating class of the School of Sustainability. Her family farm has shifted over the years—now focused on growing organic vegetables and medicinal herbs. It is also home to an animal sanctuary, which plays an essential role in the farm’s success and sustainability. When she isn’t working on the farm, you can find Laurel in New Orleans growing more food and herbs—and crafting medicinal elixirs!

Eleanor Ross

Elle Ross is the Farm to School Director for the Hardin School District 17H&1. She coordinates the food, gardening, and nutrition education throughout the district while working with farmers to increase local foods in the school lunch program. Additionally, Elle is the Executive Director of Helping Hands Food Bank, a nonprofit organization serving to eradicate hunger in Big Horn County by improving food access, quality, education and sovereignty for all. 

While proudly from St. Louis, Elle has been in Montana since 2013. After graduating from Xavier University, she spent 2 years as an academic support through Jesuit VolunteerCorps Northwest at Pretty Eagle in St. Xavier, Montana. She stayed in the county serving 2015-2017 in the Hardin School District with FoodCorps, an AmeriCorps program connecting kids to healthy food in school. She has been fortunate to continue growing with this community over the last 8 years. Outside of work, Elle enjoys exploring all the Big Sky has to offer, playing in the garden, and riding her bike.

Michael Ryan

Michael Ryan grew up in a small farm town in New Hampshire before leaving to pursue a degree in Boatbuilding and a B.A. in English from the University of Washington. He spent years working in construction, project management, and technology before becoming a Dean at South Seattle College where he ran several professional/technical programs including Culinary Arts, Pastry & Specialty Baking, Wine Studies, and Landscape & Horticulture. It was during this time that Michael began to explore the complex relationship between land, food, and community, developing partnerships with the US Department of Agriculture, Seattle Parks Department, Food Lifeline, Seattle Tilth, and other organizations to establish the first SNAP/EBT (food stamp) program on a college campus, integrating composting as a campus process and program curriculum, creating a Permaculture degree, and working with local government to craft policy around fruit trees in public spaces and with local leaders to build Community Tool Libraries.

Michael currently manages the Business Intelligence team at the Starbucks Technology Center in Arizona, where he oversees projects involving big data, AI, and emerging technologies. In addition to being a certified Coffee Master, he is also a proud graduate of the Starbucks “Greener Apron” sustainability program and a member of the Partners For Sustainability working group.

Deborah Sadler

Deborah is the Operations Manager at the Food Connects Food Hub in Brattleboro, Vermont, where she coordinates the distribution of local food in the region. She is excited about providing real-world practical solutions to get food from producers to consumers and leveling the playing field to provide access for smaller producers and customers. She wants to help build strong local networks that help the profits stay with the producers.

While studying anthropology and international relations at Eckerd College, she became passionate about the culture of food. She went on to research the effects of government policies on farmers’ ability to adapt to drought. She previously worked at farms and creameries in Massachusetts, Vermont, and Washington state, including managing a goat dairy and farmstead creamery. In her free time, she can be found hiking in the Green Mountains.

Kate Seybold

Kate works for the Minnesota Department of Agriculture as the Regional Marketing Specialist, supporting local and regional market development for Minnesota grown and raised foods. She coordinates statewide Farm to School training, technical support, and programming – including Minnesota’s new Harvest of the Month program. Kate also works closely with partners across the state to expand wholesale markets for small and emerging farmers, strengthen local and regional food systems, and support food and ag marketing efforts. Prior to her work at Minnesota Department of Agriculture, Kate spent six years leading Minneapolis Public Schools’ Farm to School program, overseeing the district’s local food procurement and education. Kate graduated from St. Olaf College with a degree in biology and environmental studies and she is an AmeriCorps alumnus. Kate currently serves on the Board of Directors for Seward Community Co-op and also recently served as Co-Chair of the Minneapolis Food Policy Council. Originally from central Wisconsin, Kate now calls Northfield, MN home. 

Sharla Strong

Sharla Strong is an enrolled tribal member of the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians and is the Special Projects Coordinator for the Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems at ASU. After graduating with her Bachelor’s Degree from Marymount Manhattan College in New York City, she worked in Theater, Documentary, Corporate Communications and Longform News at MSNBC. Sharla returned home to Oregon in 2009 to start the Healthy Traditions project, which seeks to improve the health of Siletz tribal families through educational activities, which promote the use of traditional foods through hunting, gathering, gardening and cooking, food preservation and protecting our natural resources. This work included building a community based program, working with youth and elders, and coordinating with outside agencies and food systems partners in the Western Oregon region. Sharla also worked as the Youth Development Director in the Siletz Behavioral Health Program integrating her work with traditional foods into experiential education and leadership activities for tribal youth. Sharla continues to teach, promote and advocate for Indigenous Food Systems both as a Siletz Tribal Member within the Siletz community and in her work with the Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems.

Nithesh Wazenn

Wazenn, Nithesh is a US liaison to the research wing of a multinational company, who turned to be homeless, lived in the streets of New Jersey, was kidnapped, lost immigration status, became illegal, got debarred from entering the United States for ten years, and lost footing in society. Eventually challenged his difficulties and established life in the United States.

Wazenn worked with the Labor Racketeering Division in a fraud investigation that helped over 146 immigrant students regain their valid immigration status and back wages from a fraudulent employer. He is also the first individual to be granted a direct permanent residency in the USA by the Labor Racketeering Division, Voorhees, NJ for helping end IT sweatshop trafficking. He has operational expertise across discrete manufacturing, oil & gas, and telecommunication companies in United States, Europe, and Asia-Pacific regions and practiced as a paralegal specializing in business laws and Immigration. Wazenn’s entrepreneurship journey started as a climate change entrepreneur and failed due to governmental regulations. The lessons learned from failure eventually led to an interest in food policy & governance and sustainable food systems. Currently, Wazenn is an Innovation lead managing Big data and Blockchain initiatives in the financial systems groups for Verizon. In the near future, he is interested in building a sustainable food systems startup initiative.