Featured Leader: Aryn Blumenberg

In this Featured Leader piece we hear from Aryn Blumenberg who joined the Wallace Center’s Food Systems Leadership Team as the Network Development Lead VISTA in July 2022. We’re excited to get to work with Aryn over the next year to further strengthen the Food Systems Leadership Network and scheme up ways the network can develop its presence in Aryn’s home state of Arkansas.

Before jumping into the questions, here’s a bit about Aryn: Aryn graduated from the University of Arkansas in May of 2022. She received her BS in Food Science with a minor in political science, and hopes to attend law school focusing on food and agricultural policy. Her experience within the campus food pantry drew her to food systems work and advocating for access to healthy, fulfilling and nutritious food.

On leadership & learning

Who are you? (Beyond the job title!)
I am an empath and an Enneagram 4 who has a desire for everyone to feel comfortable and cared for. I have an intense love for all animals, my favorites being dogs, bunnies, and frogs. I love to be in nature whether its hiking, swimming, exploring, or just relaxing. Podcasts are constantly on repeat, usually crime podcasts. I am a theatre enthusiast, and musical playlists is my favorite genre of music to listen to. 

What inspired you to get involved in food systems work?
While starting college with a general interest in health and nutrition, I quickly got involved with the Full Circle Food Pantry that was on my university campus. This experience quickly diverted my path, and I grew an extreme desire to know more about our food systems and barriers preventing access to healthy and nutritious food. Food is a necessity and can connect us through our communities and our cultures, but it was a blind spot after I knew so little about where my food came from.  

Is there someone who has had a tremendous impact on you as a leader? Maybe someone who has been a mentor to you, or someone you look up to. Why and how has this person impacted your life? 
The experience in college was fulfilling largely due to the many mentors that helped guide me towards an area I felt truly passionate about. Sage McCoy and Dr. Nathan Kemper were standout mentors who guided me in growing more confident in speaking out and advocating for what I believe in. 

Something not many of your colleagues know about you, or that we wouldn’t expect?

I am a big Marvel fan- I have watched the 29 Marvel movies (and some series) 3 times through and have a small merch collection which I plan on growing. 

What does food systems leadership mean to you?
Food systems leadership means an open-mind and admitting your weaknesses. Leadership will approach food systems with a preference to listen and learn in order to encompass everyone’s voice and lived experience. 

What’s your greatest leadership challenge now? What support would be meaningful from this network?
I struggle with questioning my ability to make a difference. Whether it be personal hesitations or external barriers such as policies and systems that seem resistant to change, it can feel like a daunting task to look at food systems and see where I fit in. Connecting to the network has already been eye-opening in seeing and hearing perspectives, stories, and experiences that have given me confidence in how I can play a part.  

What are you most excited about in your work?
Being quite new to the FSLN team, I’m excited to connect with this team and see what work they do. I am excited to expand my knowledge around food and agricultural systems and am confident I will learn a great deal. 

Dreams for a new way forward

A lot happened in 2020. What is one lesson that you’ll carry with you? 
The people and connections we have and make are the most important thing in pushing forward. 

What is one change you’re hoping to see to the US food system in the wake of the lessons Covid-19 brings – and how do you think we can get there?
COVID quickly highlighted the importance of food systems and food service workers, but also highlighted the problem of income inequality as many of these individuals did not have adequate incomes to support themselves. In addition, unemployment status for many food systems workers did not allow them to qualify for benefits. Federal policy needs to make changes to ensure livable minimum wages. 

Discussions around America’s past and present-day systemic racism have caused many to consider how to build anti-racist food systems. How might those involved in the movement for equitable food systems ride this momentum to reach this goal?
Intentionality and interactions with all parties of food systems can be uplifting and inspire the momentum to continue. We can continue to utilize our communities to shift attentions to those doing on-the-groundwork to make change from the bottom-up. 

When you imagine an equitable and anti-racist food system, what do you envision?
A system in which every person has a voice, and every individual has the opportunity and ability to thrive in their practice.  

Time for some real talk …

Burn out. It’s a thing, and social change is a long game. Have you found ways to balance taking care of yourself with your commitment to creating more equitable food and social systems?

I feed myself a large quantity of British reality TV.  

Unplugging from technology has been an important aspect of taking care of my mental and physical health. I can tend to get bogged down in the endless scrolling and exposure to negativity. Making sure to set the phone down in the morning and at night can help clear my mind and reset. 

What is one change would you like to see that might encourage more folks to enter and stay in this work for the long haul?
I would love to see more young people involved in the food systems movement, and personally this contributes to the idea of we are in this together and allows me to keep pushing forward. Organized and increased allocation of resources would also be beneficial to food systems. 

Any words of encouragement or advice to share with your fellow food systems leaders?

This network, and all the individuals and organizations within it, have given me hope and strength that we are not alone, so thank you for inspiring me and so many others. Absolutely anyone can be a leader! 

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