Ever since Ashia Aubourg ’18 was a child, she dreamed of one day working as a chef. Food was always the epicenter of her life, and from an early age, Aubourg would help her family in the kitchen, even whipping up side dishes for Thanksgiving.
Aubourg admits she had career tunnel vision and was focused on becoming a chef…but as she readily admits now, life never goes according to plan. So it was during an internship in high school that Aubourg first realized just how big of a problem food justice was in this country, and that she wanted to dedicate her career to addressing these inequalities.
Ashia Aubourg ’18 is a food justice advocate who helps empower communities through food.
“It was really cool that I was working in this restaurant, but no one in my family can afford to ever come and eat here. None of my friends and none of the members of the community, even though it was nestled within our community, could afford to come and enjoy these delicious foods that we offered. That just got me thinking about what food inequality and food justice looks like. Here I had this super tunnel vision of going down this culinary path of wanting to become a chef, but the culinary curriculum was very much focused on the technique and history of food, but we never dug deep into the societal impact that food has on us,” Aubourg says.
Following a spontaneous and inspirational conversation with an admissions counselor from Syracuse University, Aubourg decided to become one of the first students enrolled in a new academic offering from Falk College, the College of Arts and Sciences and the Maxwell School: food studies and policy studies.
After earning dual bachelor’s degrees in food studies and policy studies in 2018, Aubourg launched her career as a food justice advocate, entrepreneur, journalist, podcaster and creator of healthy recipes. Today, she serves as the global culinary program lead for the San Francisco, California-based company, Asana, empowering communities through the power of food.
Aubourg discusses food justice and food insecurity and how these issues affect millions of Americans; how food plays an important role when it comes to social justice, healing and culture; why food is about more than nourishment; and how her time at Syracuse University helped fuel her passions while encouraging her to take advantage of every opportunity.
Note: This conversation was edited for brevity and clarity.
Check out episode 117 of the “’Cuse Conversations” podcast featuring Ashia Aubourg ’18. A transcript [PDF] is also available.
Growing up, food was the epicenter of our culture. When we have gatherings, food is always present. Comfort-wise, food was always there to really kind of just bond us together. We had a lot of different cultural recipes. My grandparents immigrated from Haiti, so we had a lot of Haitian cuisines. I love to say my family’s kind of this melting pot of culture. Whether it’s Ethiopian food, Puerto Rican food, Dominican food, Haitian food or other types of Caribbean foods, we always had all of these beautiful cultures present at our table for different holidays and family gatherings. I just naturally grew up wanting to be a chef. I was cooking in the kitchen from a very young age and was assigned Thanksgiving dinner side dishes, so I was always in the mix cooking.
I had all of these questions about food justice and helping people gain access to food, and one of my high school teachers connected me to a woman who started a program in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where people volunteer to pack lunches for students in grades K-8 to give them free lunch on the weekends. I fell in love with the mission and started interning for her. That was my introduction to the food justice and food policy field. So when it came to applying to college, I started looking for schools that had cool programs within that realm. Syracuse was always one of my top schools. I knew people that went there and my aunt Diana Millner ’98 had an amazing career after graduating from Syracuse. I applied, and while I was waiting to hear back, I went to an in-person interview in Boston and as I was talking about my interests and passions, the woman who was interviewing me told me Syracuse was thinking of adding this new major, food studies. So I had another one of these moments where I had to trust this woman I literally had just met, but I decided to go for it and within two months of me being at Syracuse I was enrolled in that major.
It’s a huge issue because it affects so many of us from early adolescence. If we’re not getting the proper nutrients we need, it can affect our development when we get into grade school and high school or it could lead to developing eating disorders or unhealthy relationships with food. … Then we also have the food policy piece, making sure people have access to the healthy food resources they need. A lot of the work I typically did was around these healthy incentive programs, essentially allowing people to use their food stamps to purchase foods from farmer’s markets. … Then we have the environmental aspect, how we produce food and dispose of food and how that impacts our environment. It’s one of those issues that it’s like, it literally can touch every social impact issue we have going on. If we’re thinking about education inequity, food ties to that. If we’re thinking about environmental issues, food ties to that. If we’re thinking about political issues, food ties to…It really is one of those intersectional pieces.
Food at a base level is about nourishment, but food really ties people together. Food can also also be weaponized like we see in plenty of countries during times of war. Typically, the first thing to just strip people’s power away is removing their access to food. What I feel doesn’t always get recognized is that this is happening so much across all of our communities. Not in a very blatant way, but because of all these societal factors that are influencing people and their life outcomes. It can be very difficult to gain access to food, which if we think about our hierarchy of needs is definitely one of the basic levels of needs. Food is definitely nourishment, food is also a form of power for people.
The first thing is just marveling at opportunity and understanding that you don’t have to be put in a box. Having so many opportunities to step outside of my bubble and explore other passions was really important for me and taught me skills I’ve carried throughout life. I have this passion and this skillset, but Syracuse taught me that I can jump into other fields or other avenues of work. When it comes to food, all of my food studies professors were amazing and supportive. They told me I could take this degree and apply it to anything I wanted to. They instilled in me that this degree is what I make of it. We’re going to give you the tools and the resources, but we’re encouraging you to explore and see how you can take this work into other spaces.
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