Photo credit: Riikc
This week on With Your Woman Wednesday we’re speaking with Caroline Kamm, a Human Geography student at the University of Toronto. She has made school an organic part of her life by combining academics with projects that allow her to gain more experience pursuing her personal interest in farming and food systems. Her most recent project is the development of a cool new app meant to change how we think about our relationship with food.
Tell me a little about your time post high school in terms of school and work.
I graduated high school in 2011, and I took a year off before going to university. At that time I was registered at a university in the States, but I had no idea what I was doing there and what my eventual purpose was. That year was good for figuring out what I was passionate about. For the first six months, I lived in India with my boyfriend at the time. His family lives there and were able to set me up with work at a school. I spent the rest of the year working in DC for the Foundation for National Archives, which is a non-profit that does educational programming based on civic education. Essentially institutions like the National Archives get public funding but that funding is not enough to run things like the museum and school projects. So they have a non-profit on the side to make sure all these cool things can happen. It was in the process of doing all of this that I figured out that the program that I was originally enrolled in didn’t make sense for me. I wanted something more internationally focused. I found Glendon. I did my first two years there in International Studies, which I liked, but I wanted something that was more focused. In my first year, I had taken the mandatory geography course, which struck a chord for me, and after my second year I transferred to the University of Toronto where I’m currently studying Human Geography.
What motivated you to make each of these transitions, and how do you generally go about making these decisions? Is there a lot of hand wringing involved, or do you just do a very sober assessment of what your needs are?
I tend to make decisions pretty fluidly. I’ve made a lot of transitions in life, so they don’t scare me. What scares me more is sitting in one place, knowing I need a change, and not acting. In terms of my year off, I graduated from high school young and felt like I’d be going from one insular bubble to another, and in terms of transferring universities, after I got that initial feeling in first year I just decided to act on it.
Let’s talk about this cool project you’re working on, Fresh Data Network. In a nutshell it’s an app that empowers users to make informed choices about their food. When you shop, you can see where your produce is coming from, if it’s organic or locally grown. And like any good app, there would be additional tools available to the user like the ability to calculate their carbon footprint based on their shopping choices, a map that displays nearby farmers markets or organic food options or retail stores that offer local produce. Could you tell me how this would work? Do people type in the store they’re shopping at or scan something?
Ideally, something like scanning the products would come later since that’s a difficult thing to do. The initial plan is to have three layers that work between each other. The first is a grocery list where you compile the things you’re looking for and can ask suggestions from the season guides. Once you have that list, you can go to the map layer which will map out in different colours the farmers that are producing those things near you and markets that are selling those products nearby. It’s a way to make an informed decision about where your produce is coming from. In the later stage, there would be a third layer that is an analytic component that allows you to chart your grocery basket week to week and shows you, in total, how far your food travelled and what kind of environmental impact your food choices are having. For instance, if one week you bought half the meat you bought the week before, your impact would be significantly smaller. And you would also have the ability to set goals for your carbon footprint and energy consumption.
What’s the scale of this project?
My initial research was in Toronto and Belgium, and the project is currently being conducted in Mexico. Ultimately, we’d like it to be an interactive network between producers and consumers. Ideally, there would be user contribution and essentially, a shortening of that distance between the producer and the consumer. Basically, all the decisions we make around food are economic decisions. We make our choices based on what’s cheap. Importers source their food based on the global food prices. Our basic theoretical idea behind this project is that food is not an economic good, and not something we should think of economically. This app is a way of reintroducing the social aspect and cultural aspect of food, and to create a system where you can make decisions based on more than what the global market is doing at any given time.
What prompted you to decide to take on this project? There are a lot of issues related to human geography and global affairs. What was special about food networks and food management that made you want to focus on it? Do you think it’s one of the more pressing issues, or is it simply something that piqued your interest more than other problems?
Food and farming issues has been a big thing for me for a while. It’s hard for me to pinpoint exactly why, but I guess a large part of it is that I grew up in a very agricultural part of the US, in Illinois, and my hometown was right in the heartland of big corn, soy, and dairy production. I remember even as a kid having a kind of uneasiness with seeing the way that my food was produced. I went vegetarian very early on and have gone back and forth between vegan and vegetarian since then. I think getting into farming on an academic level was a way of marrying my personal belief system with my studies. It definitely started out much more as a personal interest. I’m also fortunate to have grown up knowing a lot of farmers and continuing to know a lot of farmers, so I’d also say it’s an emotional thing for me. I think that farming is one of the noblest professions so having this emotional connection to it really helps to fight off the cynicism and fatigue of working on a start-up project.
It sounds incredibly ambitious. You have background knowledge of food systems and experience working in farmers markets and non-profits, but did you have any experience in terms of app development or managing app development? Was that side of it – the technological side of it – something that was intimidating or daunting, or did you have an idea already of what you need to do to get started?
This is very outside my skill set. As a nearly graduated person it is super scary realizing just how many things are outside our skill set. You have a very narrow definition of the things that you can do. That’s another part of it: you can’t plan everything, and you’re going to have to react to things while the project is happening. The tech side got figured out through my boyfriend whom I’m working on the project with, and he’s also how we’ve managed to get the project off the ground in Mexico – he is Mexican and has a number of contacts there. The grant we’ve received is geared towards tech, so it is going towards hiring the developers, most likely two. You usually have one for Android and one for Apple.
What’s been the most challenging and unexpected part about getting this project started? I guess funding is always the big challenge, but that’s known from the beginning. What was an aspect of planning and implementing this project that you didn’t foresee?
Something we’re still grappling with is how to build this network properly. Technology can be a very exclusive tool, particularly when you’re working with farmers. We don’t want to turn this into a tool of exclusion as opposed to a tool of inclusion. So that is something that we’re continuing to talk to people about so that we can make sure this is something that works for farmers. We are thinking about them and constantly keeping them in mind and asking ourselves, “How can we include farmers in the process of creating profiles of themselves and data on themselves without being exploitative, and do so in a way that benefits them more than anybody?”
If I’m not mistaken, development of the app is already underway. What is the projected rollout date of the app?
We have a developer at this point. When it comes to the grant, we have to have something functional by August. That would mean having something in app stores that is functional and that we can show to potential investors because we would need more money for building the network.
There’s this mentality among students that your life can’t start until you’ve finished your undergrad, until you’ve finished your graduate degree, etc. etc. There’s this constant deferral of goals and projects. It doesn’t seem that way with you. I get the impression that you just organically work something like school into your life – you learn, if your current institution isn’t providing the resources you’re looking for you find one that does – and more than that you pursue your own projects and travels. Would you say that’s an accurate assessment?
Yes. I think that you will get out of a university education what you put into it. My mentality has kind of been, particularly since transferring, that I am going to make this degree work to my advantage as much as I can. I wanted to start working with farming as soon as I could. Last year, I applied for funding to do research on that topic and I got it and through the university I was able to study what I wanted. Having side projects and other things to captivate your attention is a good way to stay motivated. Focusing only on the academic and theoretical is not going to keep your attention with the exception of the few super theoretical PhDs. You need something that’s going to tie it into the real world. Once I did that for myself, school became easier and it didn’t feel like a drain. It gave me a spark to make me more motivated with school.
Has it always been this way?
School used to take up so much more of my energy, and now I don’t feel like it takes much energy at all because basically every class that I take I can link back to farming issues and that makes them a lot easier.
How do you manage to stay disciplined when it comes to balancing your workload? Is it relatively easy because you’ve chosen things that interest you, or have you developed certain time management skills over the years?
It’s mostly that I’m interested in what I’m studying. I don’t have any big tricks. I’m a free form studier. I don’t really study a lot; I just go to my classes. Recently for exams, I tried this experiment where I cut my studying in half, and worked out more, ran more, made myself good meals and it was the best exam period I had. In fact, I didn’t have coffee at all during that exam period and that’s never happened.
My second year was the most hectic because I was involved in everything all of the time, and I never figured out during the year how to fit good habits into my day so everything I did took two times longer because I didn’t have the energy I needed to get those things done.
It seems a bit dismissive of everything we’ve talked about to ask what your ultimate career goals are after graduation because I imagine after you graduate you’ll continue doing what you’re doing so instead I’ll ask, where do you think you’d like to commit your energy in the coming years? Do you see yourself continuing in academia, working for a non-profit, pursuing start up solutions? Perhaps a combination of those?
This one is tough for me, because I have a very academic brain, and that is not something that I can ignore. I don’t see myself falling into academia as a profession, but it is something I would like to continue doing by possibly pursuing another degree. In Human Geography there are a lot of combined MA/PhD programs, and I would consider getting a PhD. The big thing for me is I would like some big chunk of time to be involved in actual farming, firstly, because I think it’s the best work in the world and done by the best people in the world, but also because since I’ve gotten involved in this I’ve read a lot of the big works on farming and agriculture and the thing that always strikes me is the question of “who are you writing for?” and I think that’s one of the biggest issues with academia and why I don’t want to fall into it for the rest of my life. If you decide to make studying farming as your career how do you get to that point without ever actually speaking to a farmer, seeing what knowledge they can access, what knowledge they can’t access, and why would you privilege the university knowledge over the vast body of knowledge that the people you’re supposedly working for possess. The big thing for me is that when it comes to any projects I do about agriculture, I want anything I do to be for and from the farmer’s perspective.
What are some of your favourite spots for getting things done in the city?
It used to be the Centre for Social Innovation on Bathurst, but that just moved. I can be surprisingly productive in my room. I also take GIS, and the GIS lab at U of T is one of the coolest places to work.