Steering Council Highlight

Jennifer Blesh: Member Representative

A member of the SAEA since it was founded, Jennifer Blesh is thrilled to be back on the SAEA Steering Council. When she was a graduate student, Jennifer attended the first conference on Facilitating Sustainable Agriculture Education in 2006 in Pacific Grove, CA. Following that conference, she was on the organizing committee that planned the 2nd National Conference on Facilitating Sustainable Agriculture Education at Cornell University, where the SAEA was launched as a professional organization. She served on the SAEA Steering Council from August 2010 to January 2012.

Currently, Jennifer is an Assistant Professor of Sustainable Food Systems at the University of Michigan (UM), in the School of Natural Resources and Environment. Her research integrates ecology and social science focusing on two main themes. The first investigates how to manage plant diversity and ecological interactions in agricultural systems to increase soil carbon storage, bolster internal nutrient cycling capacity, and reduce the environmental costs of agriculture. Her complementary social science research seeks to identify processes that can leverage farm-level transitions to ecological nutrient management, and food systems transformations that conserve natural resources and enhance social equity. Her research takes place on working farms whenever possible—primarily in the U.S. Midwest and in Brazil. She is also collaborating with colleagues in UM’s Sustainable Food Systems Initiative (SFSI) on projects exploring links between smallholder production systems, dietary diversity, and human health.

In part due to networking opportunities with the SAEA, Jennifer incorporates many active learning methods into her courses at UM including field trips, games, case studies, debates, and clickers for larger lecture courses. She has co-developed an interdisciplinary Foundations of Sustainable Food Systems course with colleagues in Urban and Regional Planning and the Department of Nutritional Sciences. The class integrates theory and practice through collaborative instruction, and experiential and dialogue-based learning. A new community-academic partnership course that Jennifer is co-facilitating this winter with a community leader from Detroit may be of interest to SAEA members. Called “Food Literacy for All,” the course is structured as a seminar series highlighting high-profile practitioners from across the food system. Together with collaborators, she has developed innovative partnerships to engage community members from Detroit and Ann Arbor in the series, and is using livestreaming and videotaping to extend participation and the reach of the course. The schedule can be found online[1], and video recordings of each talk will be posted by the UM SFSI on YouTube.

Put simply, Jennifer is strongly committed to improving sustainable agriculture and food systems pedagogy. The SAEA has been a tremendous resource for her professional development, and she is eager to contribute to advancing the important goals of this organization.