Changing American farms: UM prof a national leader in sustainable agriculture

“Food democracy is about citizens, not multinational corporations, having the power to determine agri-food policies and practices locally, regionally, nationally, and globally,” said UM professor Neva Hassanein. (Dave Stalling/Missoula Current)

University of Montana environmental studies professor Neva Hassanein’s work reaches far beyond the classroom walls — to the nation’s farms and ranches — helping to change the way Americans perceive, grow, harvest and process, package, transport, market, consume and dispose of their food.

“Agriculture is central to all of our lives and to the health of the planet,” Hassanein said Thursday. “My work has emphasized the value of the university partnering with community organizations and businesses to build food systems that can provide long-term food security for our community in ways that are ecologically sound, economically viable and socially just.” 

Now, the Agriculture, Food and Human Values Society has honored Hassanein with an Excellence in Public Service Award, given to “members who have made academic or non-academic contributions that have had significant public service impact on the advancement of agriculture, food, and human values through their work in universities, colleges, government, non-government organizations, or consultancies.”

Douglas Constance, professor of sociology at Sam Houston State University, was among those who nominated Hassanein for the recognition. He described her as a “national leader in sustainable agri-food systems, someone who exemplifies the ideal of the public scholar.”

“Students trained and mentored by Hassanein have become a presence throughout the country, making thoughtful intellectual contributions to national food and farming conferences and professional society meetings, as well as moving on to assume important leadership roles at universities, nonprofits, and in the public sector,” said Marcia Ostrom, an associate professor at the School of the Environment, College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resources Sciences at Washington State University.

The courses taught by Hassanein at UM sum up her interests: “Sustainable Communities,” “Food, Justice, and Sustainability,” “Foundations of Change,” “Environmental Organizing,” “Research Methods for Social Change,” “The Politics of Food,” and “Assessing the Montana Food System.”

The Agriculture, Food and Human Values Society has honored UM professor Neva Hassanein with an Excellence in Public Service Award. (Dave Stalling/Missoula Current)

Author of “Changing the Way America Farms: Knowledge and Community in the Sustainable Agriculture Movement,” Hassanein is also interested in the concept of “food democracy.”

That’s “the idea that people can and should actively participate in shaping the food system, rather than remain passive consumers on the sidelines,” she said. “Food democracy is about citizens, not multinational corporations, having the power to determine agri-food policies and practices locally, regionally, nationally, and globally.” 

Her work also explores topics such as food safety, pesticides, water pollution, the national organic program, and agricultural biotechnology. 

Hassanein places a strong emphasis on learning by doing, and making a positive difference in the world. She leads by example. 

“The reason I wanted to work in UM’s environmental studies program, in large part, is because of its long-held commitment to civic participation in environmental issues,” Hassanein said. “We can’t teach about civic engagement unless we’re engaged ourselves. Public service is one of the most valuable things we can do. We have a responsibility to work in communities to solve real problems we’re facing.”

Hassanein and her students have contributed to a variety of regional food and agricultural initiatives through research, internships and projects, including conducting a community food assessment for Missoula County, which led to the creation of the Community Food and Agricultural Coalition. 

She and her students also helped launch the statewide Grow Montana program, and were involved in the nationally recognized Farm to College Program at UM Dining, which included a study of the economic, social and transportation-related impacts of the program.  

They also conducted a multi-dimensional case study of the Western Montana Growers Cooperative, and produced a report called “Local is Delicious, but it’s Not Always Easy.”

In addition to her involvement with the Agriculture, Food and Human Values Society, Hassanein also serves on the board of directors for the Missoula Chapter of Montana Conservation Voters and was appointed by Missoula Mayor John Engen to serve on the Missoula City-County Consolidated Planning Board. 

Her numerous other honors and awards include: The Don Aldrich Award for longtime contributions to the conservation of natural resources and environmental protection, from the Missoula Conservation Roundtable; a Distinguished Alumni Award from the Gaylord Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, University of Wisconsin; a Sustainable Agriculture Education Award from the Alternative Energy Resources Organization of Montana; the Helen and Winthrop Cox Award for Excellence in Teaching from the College of Arts and Sciences at UM, and the Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter Award for Campus-Community Partnerships in Environmental Studies Program in Ecological Agriculture and Society (PEAS) and Garden City Harvest.

“Her work has had a tremendous influence on the national, regional and local level,” said Daniel Spencer, director of UM’s environmental studies program. “Her impact on food systems and sustainability has been remarkable. We’re proud to have her in the program. She’s the real deal.”