Native Americans across the country planted the Three Sisters — corn, beans, and squash — together. The beans put nitrogen back into the soil, the corn grew a stalk that the beans used as a trellis, and the squash shaded the roots, minimizing water use.
“That’s a perfect example of a sustainable food system,” Brian Swette said.
“And it’s historic and delicious,” Kelly Swette said.
In that spirit, the couple has made a major gift to establish the Kelly and Brian Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems at Arizona State University, and to create the Swette Family Scholarship Program, to provide financial support to students from agricultural farm-working and food-working families.
The center will tackle food systems from a holistic standpoint, taking into consideration water and energy use, carbon footprint and nutrition, all with an emphasis on efficiency across the global supply chain. It will be housed within the School of Sustainability.
Brian Swette is an ASU alumnus and former board chairman of Burger King. Kelly Swette has a background in engineering and marketing at Pepsico and Calvin Klein. Together in 2012 they launched Sweet Earth Natural Foods, a company which sells plant-based, natural and organic foods.
“There’s a recognition by both of us that the twin challenges that are most important to society — outside of war — are health and sustainability,” Brian Swette said. “Our company and that center will advance the work of research, policy, and education to more fully understand and provide solutions that will move us to a more sustainable food system that will have the benefit of increasing the lifespan and the quality of peoples’ lives.”
Traditionally, universities come at food from two angles: agriculture or nutrition. The Swettes want their center to incorporate supply chain, nutrition, and environmental and agricultural science, and get a more thoughtful look at food systems in a bigger way.
“When you do that, you’re probably going to get better solutions and better answers,” Brian Swette said. “What we’re hoping to do with food systems is to have a thoughtful, holistic look at the entire food system. If you go to our website and you see our eco-clock, it shows the benefits of plant-based eating in terms of the amount of energy that’s used, the amount of water that is used. It looks at the consumption of food from a systems standpoint rather than just one piece of it.”
Government subsidies drive food systems in unnatural ways, Kelly Swette said.
“That would be farm subsidies that are supporting production of grains that are used as feed for livestock,” she said. Kelly Swette grew up in a farming community and has been cooking since she was very young. “(Food) an essential part of one’s well-being, and it can make you healthy or it can make you sick.”
Looking for the right path
Joan McGregor, professor of philosophy in the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies, studies food choice and ethics.
“(The center) is something we should be doing,” McGregor said. “Right now we have a good system that’s destroying the planet and destroying our children’s health.”
McGregor asks questions such as "How many natural resources did a food item take to produce? Did the farmer work in decent conditions and make a fair wage?"
“Often when scientists get involved in thinking about agriculture, it’s, 'How do we produce more calories for less money?'” she said. “That to me is not the question. We produce twice as many calories in this country as we need, but we’re producing the wrong calories. We ask the question, 'What’s the problem with the food system?' There are multiple problems … We need to be looking at it with multiple lenses.”
Government policies and industrial corporate agriculture are beginning to be challenged from the bottom up, McGregor said.
“The local movement has done a lot (to galvanize) interest in local food and urban gardeners,” she said.
It's easy to see the effect: Small grassroots groups are starting gardens in schools; celebrity chefs are working with school lunches; grocery chains like Bashas and Frys have huge organic sections, driven by consumer demand.
“What’s happened in America was that the land grant universities that were doing food have been supporting big industrial agriculture,” McGregor said. “We’ve seen a significant decline of small family farms and what we have is big corporate agriculture … It’s destroying soil, and that has implications on ecosystem. All these things all go together.”
Finding the right home
Christopher Boone, dean of the School of Sustainability, said the new center will complement research underway and speed up new work.
“This generous investment by Kelly and Brian Swette will accelerate our efforts at ASU in sustainable food systems research, education, and outreach,” Boone said. “Food systems, which extend well beyond growing food on farms, are a critical part of the U.S. economy. This investment will allow ASU researchers and students, working with external partners, to develop innovative ideas and solutions to the many challenges of current food systems. By combining ASU’s assets as a research powerhouse with the entrepreneurial spirit of our students and the expertise from external partners, these sustainable food systems solutions will have profound and positive implications for livelihoods, human health, and ecosystem integrity.”
As part of the center, the nation’s first degree program in Sustainable Food Systems will be launched to prepare the next generation of researchers and business leaders to lead the way in sustainable food systems.
Brian Swette said he and Kelly chose ASU because of the “the agility and speed with which ASU takes on significant challenges, and we felt we wanted a place that really had innovation, and number two really understood the benefits of crossdisciplinary research and collaboration,” he said. “We also felt ASU was not going to be burdened by the baggage of being an agricultural university. Given that ASU was the most innovative university, those are the same values and aspirations we have … We’re so excited that challenge is going to be taken on by the School of Sustainability at Arizona State.”
Few challenges are more fundamental to society than ensuring the sustainability of our food systems, said Gretchen Buhlig, CEO of the ASU Foundation.
“This gift provides a powerful catalyst for the university to lead a large-scale transformation of how we think about, make more efficient and secure those systems,” Buhlig said.
Top photo: Kelly and Brian Swette launched Sweet Earth Natural Foods in 2012. Photo courtesy Brian Swette.