Honoring a "good food” legacy while forging his own

August 13, 2018

Whether it’s Eastside, Westside, Southside, or on the Capitol Square, faculty affiliate of the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, Alfonso Morales has some connection to the farmer’s markets in Madison. That’s because he’s worked professionally with food systems for over two decades and had many mentors, including the late Jerry Kaufman, who influenced his academic career and personal philosophies. Now, he’s looking to pay it forward by helping others enter food systems work through research and mentorship.

Morales is a University of Wisconsin-Madison Professor of Urban and Regional Planning and Vilas Trust Awardee who teaches courses related to food markets and urban city design. He’s also a writer, researcher, policy analyst and philosopher as it relates to food systems. In the local community, he works as a consultant to increase access to farmer’s markets, studies obesity prevention methods for Wisconsin and leads a course teaching formerly incarcerated men how to farm for themselves. Morales is also involved with many of the food systems projects happening in Madison, which is how he met his mentor Kaufman many years ago.

In 2007, when Morales was first becoming acquainted with the university, he learned about Kaufman, who had previously taught some of the same courses he was going to be teaching. At the time, Kaufman was a Professor Emeritus of Urban and Regional Planning, and Morales wanted to meet to learn more about his interest in food systems and teaching experience. That marked the beginning of their friendship.

“We used to meet randomly at the Terrace and other places so our friendship just sort of grew and grew,” Morales said. “We had intellectual interests in common even though we were from different generations… so it was easy conversation and we were both easy conversationalists.”

Despite their mutual interests, the friendship between Morales and Kaufman never carried over into any shared projects or professional collaboration. While they didn’t work on any research together, Morales did still seek advice and insight from Kaufman and, in turn, Kaufman would advise him by offering insightful questioning, research articles and connections to many other leaders in food systems work around the Madison area.

Those conversations also led to some new perspectives in food systems work. Morales drew upon his legal and philosophical knowledge to understand systematic issues while Kaufman viewed problems through the lens of community engagement and urban design. Their ideas often intersected and allowed each other to think more broadly about food system principles and how they could fit these theories into the framework of the Wisconsin Idea.

“We were really sparks to each other because he would say one thing that would spark my imagination and then I would say something that would spark a thought in him. We would just go back and forth like that,” Morales said.

Those conversations stuck with Morales. Kaufman expanded his view of law as an “invisible scaffolding” for people’s perceptions of the world. The rules aren’t visibly there or even intuitive necessarily, but they shape how an individual can exist in marketplaces and thrive in food systems. Morales applied this idea of “invisible scaffolding,” to urban design, social structures and many other factors when collecting data for marketplace research, which eventually developed into Metrics + Indicators for Impact, or MIFI (pronounced like WIFI with an ‘m’). This online toolkit assists markets by providing metrics for market success and strategies for how to collect data specific to the market.

As Morales developed and refined the MIFI toolkit, he began to observe marketplace trends that were consistent with some of Kaufman’s earlier findings. Since then, he has been revisiting some of those ideas further for a book project he is working on with Kaufman’s former Ph.D. students Brandon Born and Samina Raja, which will honor the marketplace theories that Kaufman developed.

Mentorship was also a big part of Kaufman’s teaching philosophy, something that Morales and Kaufman share. But when it comes to mentoring, Morales believes it can be overly formal. Instead, he wants to keep it simple and avoid the sense of hierarchy that pervades those relationships.

“I really don’t like the word mentoring,” Morales said. “If we’re going to work together, I want a student to respect me because I’m supportive of them and they see that and they can benefit from the relationship.”

What Morales really wants students to think about is how food systems research will apply to other areas of life. He encourages students to think about how this knowledge fits into a historical and cultural narrative and what their roles are in that story.

Morales also wants students to work collaboratively with other sectors of society and align their work with other agents for change. Already his students involve themselves with the world-at-large: graduate student Lauren Suerth served as co-principal investigator for the MIFI project alongside Morales, undergraduate Chloe Green was recently awarded a Wisconsin Idea Fellowship for her work to make food markets more inclusive to SNAP benefits recipients and undergraduate Claire Clark made a video this spring for the Clark Ford College Community Challenge for her idea to increase bike access to farmer’s markets for low-income communities.

It’s these sorts of personal and community relationships that have heavily defined the work Morales and those in his lab have done. So, in 2014, he renamed his lab the “Kaufman Lab for the Study and Design of Food Systems and Marketplaces” in remembrance of his colleague and friend who passed away just one year before that. Morales says he wanted students to know that he also had people to look up to who helped him along the way and that Professor Kaufman was a shining example of that.

“I’m trying to honor the legacy he left behind,” Morales said. “To continue that interest in good scholarship that’s useful to communities on behalf of all of society. That, to me, is his legacy.”