Profile with Susan Humphrey

Susan Humphrey (Maritimes & University 2010) is currently pursuing an MPhil degree in Politics at the University of Oxford. Her research is focused on the political nature of food production, looking in particular at the local and organic food movement in Canada. She also holds a B.A in International Relations and Political Science from Mount Allison University.

Rhodes Project: What was the last book you read that you couldn’t put down?

Susan Humphrey: The Stop by Nick Saul and Andrea Curtis. It’s about a community food organization in Toronto and was incredibly inspiring. The organization started as a food bank and then came to question the entire model of food banks and how they deal with hunger and poverty.  They concluded that handouts of food aren’t enough, and in any event the handouts are often the worst kind of food - very processed, very unhealthy, high in sodium and high in fat. They questioned whether this kind of food was actually hurting their clients more, leading to problems like diabetes, obesity, heart disease etc. They came to develop a number of community food programs that involved urban farming, education on food and health, as well as community advocacy. It was interesting for me because my research wasn’t focused on poverty alleviation and the role that local food movement could play in that.

Rhodes Project: What is your favorite thing to do in your home town?

Susan Humphrey: I’m from a small town in Northern New Brunswick called Campbellton, with only about 7200 people. It’s very beautiful; it’s on the north shore of New Brunswick so it shares a border with Quebec, the Restigouche river flows through and the Appalachian mountains start there. When I’m home, my favorite thing to do is to just be outside. I love going for a drive down the coast towards some of the smaller towns. I also love road biking along the coast. The main draw to the place is still my family, my parents who still live there. Most of my extended family live in the Maritimes and I love being able to spend time with all of them when I go home.

Rhodes Project: What has been most enjoyable about your time at Oxford?

Susan Humphrey: I remember in my interview for the Rhodes, one of the questions was “Why do you want to go to Oxford of all places?” As I said then and as has been true throughout my experience, it has been the people. It has been an unbelievable network to be able to tap into and get to know. I will have friends for the rest of my life who are so inspiring and are so capable and focussed on their goals. They always make you question what you’re doing, what you should be doing and if you’re doing enough. Especially the Rhodes community; they are all phenomenally friendly, open, welcoming, excited and committed to what they’re doing.

Rhodes Project: Could you tell us a little bit about your current research?

 Susan Humphrey: My research, broadly speaking, looks at the local food movement and relates this to the idea of politically-oriented consumerism. A lot of authors who write about political participation have commented on its decline with lower voter turnout, lower party membership etc. Other authors counter that it’s not participation across the board that is declining but participation through more traditional forms. All kinds of other participation like signing petitions, joining rallies and protests, are all on the rise. One of these new forms is political consumerism – purchasing things like local food, organic food, and sustainably produced food for political reasons.  But I noticed that the consumers of this kind of food seldom asked questions about the beliefs and values of the producers of the food. My thesis examines whether we might also see something that I term “political production” -- people producing food in a particular way according to their political beliefs and values; and whether through that labour they can bring about change in society.  My research involved interviews and quantitative research, talking to a lot of farmers about why they do what they do, what is it that they hope that they will achieve with the work they do.

Rhodes Project: What is the most interesting thing you’ve learned from your work so far?

Susan Humphrey: It is the incredible passion and dedication that these farmers have for what they do. I am particularly impressed by the level of education attained by many farmers. The farmers I was interviewing operated on a small scale and sold their produce locally through farmers’ markets or community shared agricultural programmes. Many have had previous careers and have studied everything from English to marine biology to PhDs in economics. They have sat down and asked themselves – “How can I be most effective in bringing about the change that I want to see?” Although their training may have said it’s by doing research or working for a non-profit or the Government or running for office, their hearts and their minds said that “the way that I can make the most change is by dedicating my life and my labour to causes that I strongly believe in.” They have often given up lucrative careers to do work that is very difficult, use their bodies to do it, and don’t reap a lot of rewards in terms of economic benefits; their livelihoods are on the line. They do it because they really love it and they believe in it to the extent of making those personal sacrifices. That to me has been very inspiring.

Another interesting thing I discovered was just how accustomed we are to spending very little on food. What we pay for in the supermarket is not the true cost of that product. In no way does it take into account the environmental degradation or impact of the production methods on the environment. This expectation isn’t entirely our fault because for a long time the goal has been to spend less on food and more on lots of often frivolous things like entertainment or cell phone bills, things that aren’t a core part of our existence. We don’t factor in how important it is to consider spending on food not only for our own health but the health of the land, for our community and rural areas, and most importantly, the vitality and viability of farmers and their craft.

Rhodes Project: Is there something that constantly frustrates you?

Susan Humphrey: The fact that people don’t want to spend money on things that are good for us and good for the planet but are willing to spend so much money on things that are bad for us. People often don’t realize that what they put into their bodies actually matters to their health. It impacts your productivity, your mental health, the way you feel, your well being. But it’s always a tradeoff between what is cheaper and what is better. It’s funny because even though I am someone who thinks a lot about this, when I’m in the grocery store, I’m looking at prices and as much as I try not to pay attention, it’s hard. 

Rhodes Project: If you could have dinner with a historical figure, who would it be and why?

Susan Humphrey: I was thinking about a book I read a few years ago - The Last Campaign, about the presidential race of Bobby Kennedy, JFK’s younger brother. He would have been a fascinating person to meet just to hear him speak; he had a way with words that was so direct, sharp and so poignant and passionate, very personal. The issues that he raised during his campaign for presidency were so important, like the American civil rights movement, issues of poverty and social welfare in the United States. He was a huge crusader for values like equality, justice and fairness. People like him remind us that there is always something you can do and that there are always people who are in need of help and protection.

Rhodes Project: If you could travel to any place in the world, where would it be and why?

Susan Humphrey: I wish I could spend some more time travelling to the southern states of the U.S. I’m very interested in the American civil rights movement and the political role of race. At the same time, I have driven across Canada but I have yet to see Canada’s north and would love to see the Yukon, Nunavut, and the Northwest Territories.

Rhodes Project: What are you looking forward to doing after graduation?

Susan Humphrey: I’m looking forward to being able to travel more and to see some more parts of the world but I’m also really excited to put my research to use. So working for any kind of food organization focusing on issues that we spoke about earlier seems quite exciting to me. I’m also contemplating applying to law school, so we’ll see!

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