Students today really want to learn about the future of food, but sadly, and amazingly, most universities have little or nothing to offer that is of value. Enter Samantha Derrick, who decided to do more than complain about it and just make it happen, not only in her own university but everywhere! Join us to be inspired by Samantha and the Plant Futures Initiative.
ABOUT OUR GUEST
Samantha Derrick is the Founder and Executive Director of Plant Futures Initiative, a 501c3 academic course and global student movement with a mission to accelerate the transition to a plant-centric food system. Samantha received her Master’s of Public Health from UC Berkeley and prior to graduate school, worked for a variety of environmental organizations in the US, Mexico, and India.
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Mariann Sullivan: Welcome to Our Hen. House, Samantha.
Samantha Derrick: Thank you so much for having me.
Mariann Sullivan: I am delighted to have you, and I'm really excited to hear about this program. I think it's so fascinating, and I think it's so fascinating that it hasn't existed for very long, like you just invented this. And let's talk a little bit about how it all started. My understanding, and correct me if I'm wrong, is that you were studying for a master's degree in public health, but you couldn't find the content that you wanted in the program, at least the content that you wanted from your perspective, which of course, involved food.
Am I right? Is that how this started?
Samantha Derrick: That's correct. Yes. Yes. I went to school to get my master's in public health at UC Berkeley a few years ago, wanting to focus on animal agriculture and specifically plant based eating as a solution to a lot of these public health issues that we're facing related to animal agriculture.
And I was just surprised that there was no conversation around it in my public health program. There weren't any classes. I mean, it wasn't even a topic of discussion in my courses. So completely left out animal agriculture and plant based eating and it was just very surprising to be at a more progressive public health program in the US and to not even be touching on these topics.
And a lot of my frustration and the story behind Plant Futures and starting the organization starts there.
Mariann Sullivan: I'm not even remotely surprised because I find that all the time, but it is unbelievably ridiculous. Just as an aside, I just wanted to mention, I teach animal law at Cornell and I had two students from the business school. I know it's a totally different topic.
Who wanted to take my course. They actually weren't allowed to, but I let them anyway, but don't tell anybody, because there was not one thing at the business school, they wanted to go into a plant-based business. That's what they wanted to do with their lives. There was not one course at the business school that had any relevance to that plan.
So I don't think this is exclusive to public health at Berkeley. I think this is a problem everywhere and you are setting out to fix it.
Did this actually start by you sitting down and deciding to design the exact course you wanted to take?
Samantha Derrick: That is sort of how it started and it wasn't even planned. I was actually very frustrated that first semester at Berkeley and I was starting to doubt whether I had even chosen the right grad school program. I knew I wanted to work in the movement for a plant based food company.
So I started doubting, am I even at the right place? I mean, they're not doing anything to prepare me here. And, actually that semester I was taking a course at the business school with Will Rosenzweig who teaches many of the food innovation courses at the business school at Berkeley.
He's one of my mentors and he's been a great inspiration behind starting Plant Futures. I spoke to him one day, told him about my frustration with Berkeley and not being able to find the right support. And he actually encouraged me, he's like, well, why don't you start something at the university? He said, I get this interest from students all the time wanting to work for plant based food companies, wanting to get more involved and we don't have anything at the university and I think we really need something. So he kind of encouraged me just to take it on as a personal initiative in his class as a class project. So I started working on it, not really thinking it was going to get anywhere. I thought it was just going to be a class project and just kind of ideating and drafting.
And it was one of those moments where one thing kind of led to another. And the idea started growing. Will got really excited about the class when he saw the first draft of the syllabus that I created and he said, I think there's actually a possibility we can submit this to the university for academic credit.
So I really take it on as a personal initiative that summer. I spent my entire summer internship working on developing the syllabus more thoroughly, thinking about what I would have wanted for myself. What would have been helpful for me when I was at Berkeley to learn more about plant based food systems and more than anything to get a career and a job in the sector.
So I met other students in the process who got really excited about the idea, who started supporting me with the syllabus and worked several months on this, and it was many, many iterations of the syllabus, feedback from my professor, from other students, to finally get it to a point where we were ready to submit it to the university, and then submitted it to the university, no idea whether they were going to say yes.
I mean, I was actually assuming they were probably going to push back on it. And, I remember getting a text from Will one day saying, guess what? The university approved the course. This is going to be launching next year. So I was just so ecstatic and excited about it. But then that meant, oh, now I actually have to teach this course.
So Will and I prepared for a few months and we ended up co-teaching the course together in the spring.
We had no idea what kind of turnout we were going to have, and to get a course approved at the university, and in order for it to continue going, we needed high turnout in the course. We needed students signed up, excited, engaged, and we had no idea. I was like, are there other students besides me who care about this topic?
I just didn't know. And we ended up marketing the course across campus, and launching a two part class. The first course was a crash weekend intro course to plant based food systems over two days. And the second class was the challenge lab where students got to work directly with a company or organization from the plant based food sector for a whole semester.
They got real applied learning, hands on experience, working on real challenges from the sector, from these organizations. That first class, that intro class, We had no idea what the enrollment was going to be like. We ended up having 500 people attending that first semester. We were so excited. I just remember seeing the enrollment numbers going up day after day to a point where we were like, we're going to have to cap this because this is just more than we ever anticipated.
So I just remember that feeling and that signal when I started seeing those numbers, realizing this is something students care about. This is something students want to be involved with. And we had students from different campuses emailing us, asking us if they could audit the course and sit in.
And that was really the signal behind there is something here and there is something missing, not just at Berkeley, but all of these universities. Just seeing the excitement of students from other campuses wanting to be a part of this just showed me too that they're not talking about this at other schools either.
We really, really need more conversation around this topic. So that was my first experience with the first course. So much has happened since then, which I'll share more about, but that's how it all started.
Mariann Sullivan: Yeah, that's an amazing story. And I guess it was because you had Will Rosensweig, who's a real professor ' cause normally high prestige universities as Berkeley is, don't just hire students to teach courses. I mean, you have to have that connection and somebody with some cloud and some prestige at the university.
So that seems like a crucial piece of what happened, at least at Berkeley. We'll talk a little bit more about how you would make that happen at other schools, because I know you wanna spread this to other schools. So did you ever make a decision that education was where you wanted to focus your efforts?
Or did this just all kind of happen? And if you had to do all over again, would you say education is the place to be when it comes to promoting plant-based foods?
Samantha Derrick: It was not where I thought I was going to end up. It was not my intention when I went back to grad school. I didn't think I would wind up working in education, but through this personal experience I had, and realizing what a gap it was for me and what a challenge it was for me to navigate the university and higher education without access to this information.
And then also learning in that process that so many other students were feeling the same way around this topic and wanting to be more involved. I think that was the first signal for me, well, there's something here. I mean, we should be talking about this, but then the more I worked on it, and the more I saw the student response and the engagement we were getting and just the excitement, that was the moment where I knew I wanted to keep working in education because I saw such an opportunity there.
And I think education, universities, students, are often overlooked in our movement and we're not thinking quite enough around the role that academia and students can have in really growing this movement and bringing more awareness to what's happening in food systems. And it has been transformational for me.
It has been life changing. And I am so excited and I'm set on this path. I want to keep working on this path. And I never would have considered it if I hadn't had that personal experience. But now that I'm working on it, I'm really seeing the challenges and the flaws in higher education with how they teach, the lack of incentive to offer new topics, new curriculum for students.
So that's really what we're working on. It's not just teaching about food systems and factory farming and the movement, but also innovating the way that we deliver education through hands on experience, through multidisciplinary learning as well, which we offer in our course. And it's been just so awesome working in education.
And I'm really excited to be in this field because it wasn't part of my plan originally.
Mariann Sullivan: Yeah, I'm excited to hear more about it too and before we get into the details, and I really wanna get into the details. Because like I said, I'm an adjunct professor at a university, so I'm not really an insider, but all of these problems that you're talking about seem to be the things I've seen exactly happen, that everybody's in their silo and as a result, even though you have brilliant people and even very committed people, change doesn't really necessarily happen.
So that was the first course, but let's get into, now you formed the organization and you're trying to spread this around the world. Let's talk a little bit about that setup and then we'll get into a little bit more of these issues of how the course works and how you encourage students to take it and all of that.
So, tell us about Plant Futures, and the mission and how you're going to take this beyond Berkeley. Are you still teaching it at Berkeley or is somebody still teaching it at Berkeley?
Samantha Derrick: I am no longer involved with teaching, at least not now. I actually will be taking on a teaching position again next year, but we have a teaching staff, one of my colleagues, Brittany Sartore, teaches the course along with Will Rosenzweig, who continues to teach it.
Mariann Sullivan: He's still teaching it. Okay, alright, so tell us about Plant Futures.
Samantha Derrick: Yes, of course. So Plant Futures is the name of a course that we started at Berkeley.
But once we saw that there was an opportunity beyond Berkeley, we had students emailing us from all over the world wanting to audit the course, wanting to join. That's when we saw the signal beyond Berkeley. And we started thinking, how do we get this resources course available this information out to students everywhere, not just students enrolled at UC Berkeley.
So, again, it was one of those moments where Will actually encouraged me. He said, would you consider starting a nonprofit organization, educational nonprofit, so we could build this faster outside of the academic system and make this accessible to students everywhere? Because as I'm sure you know, working within the academic system, within university bureaucracies is extremely slow and bureaucratic.
Even our experience at Berkeley, I mean, it took us, really from when I started to when the course got launched and approved, like a year long. And if we try to do this at every campus, it's going to take us decades to get this going. So we were trying to think of how to innovate it and make this move faster.
So that was the idea behind starting the nonprofit. So I graduated Berkeley with my master's, I've transitioned full time to starting a nonprofit organization, the Plant Futures Initiative. And since then, we've been able to grow our resources, our programming, to so many different campuses across the world.
We have 30 universities and our student chapter network, and our student chapter network was a new add on that we started after I graduated, where we were really trying to activate the plant based food community on different campuses and get students mobilized to be advocates for plant based food systems, even outside of the curriculum.
So we've also, at the same time, been working on growing the curriculum and trying to figure out how to make it accessible to students outside of the UC system. We have been growing access to the curriculum as well. We're eventually going to be offering an independent certificate course too. But right now, our focus is still growing the student community, growing the number of campuses in our network, connecting students across campuses, really getting students active and mobilized while they're still in school.
And then more than anything, creating a talent pipeline between academia and the industry. So also preparing them for careers, connecting them to the right people, to the right mentors. We have a whole network of professional partners and organizations that we work with as well. So it's really focused on getting students educated, equipped, mobilized, and then also connecting them to jobs and internships in the sector.
And most of our work is still in the US. We have 30 campuses in the US active in our network and we have started to expand globally and we have bigger global expansion plans for next year. Right now we're actually running a pilot program in Mexico City that we just launched, where I live right now and we're really excited about the potential to launch across Latin America as well, in addition to Asia and Europe. But we've just been super excited to see the traction and the response that we've been getting from students really everywhere. I mean, globally, in addition to the US, there seems to be a lot of excitement, and also the same challenges, even globally outside of the US, you talk to universities in Latin America, in Mexico, Europe, Asia, and it's the same challenge where they're not equipping students and they're not teaching them about these topics.
So that's really where we come in and the gap that we're trying to fill.
Mariann Sullivan: It's amazing and amazing progress, but it's not like the course is in all of these different places yet.
But the course has expanded beyond Berkeley right? To, one or two additional universities. and then we'll talk about the chapters and what they're doing and the other stuff.
But the course itself, tell us where you've established it and where you hope to establish it and I'll get into details once you tell me that.
Samantha Derrick: Yeah. Sounds great. So of course, UC Berkeley was the first one to offer for credit. It was actually cross listed at the business school and at the public health school. But it was open and available to students across all academic disciplines. It's a multidisciplinary course, and it actually took us quite a while to get it structured that way.
They're not traditionally set up that way so students in different programs are working together. And that was something we were really pushing for, especially for food systems challenges. I mean, we need people from all backgrounds working together to solve these systemic challenges.
It didn't feel right to just offer it to business students or to just offer it to public health students. We wanted students from all programs.
So we were able to get it set up as a multidisciplinary program at Berkeley, which was a huge win for us. But then once we started thinking beyond Berkeley, we started reaching out to other departments, other campuses, other schools. Naturally the UC system felt the right direction to move in since we're already connected to the other University of California campuses.
So the first school to offer it in addition to UC Berkeley was UCLA. Which we were really excited to get them on board. And then Harvard offered it about a year later through their government department with more of a policy focus, which was really exciting. So they actually adapted our curriculum, took the Plant Futures lab and then the challenges, projects, organizations they were working with were more policy and government side.
So Harvard, UCLA, UC Berkeley, and then Stanford offered it to a couple of their students for credit. They were actually able to join the Berkeley course, but receive credit through Stanford. So we learned a lot through that process around like getting it established for credit and how it works. And through that process also learned how slow it is and how painfully slow and bureaucratic it is to do that.
So then we started trying to think, how do we innovate and make this available even faster? So right now we're actually working on developing a certificate program that exists independent of the university system where students anywhere in the world are going to be able to sign up and take the course so that we can make this accessible faster to students.
We're still in process of making that, but in the meantime, one very exciting thing that happened just the last few months, we got a grant from the University of California school system to offer it across all 10 UC campuses next year, which is another huge win for us, it's something we weren't expecting.
So, right now, we're actually mostly focused on preparing this new UC course, it's going to be launching next fall, and then the next step after that will be working more on the certificate program. So, it's been kind of one step at a time, slowly growing and the idea is to make this information accessible to students everywhere so it's not just restricted to certain students at certain campuses.
Mariann Sullivan: It sure doesn't sound like you're slowly growing. It sounds like you're lightning, lightning fast growing! Alright, so it's going to be a course in some universities, a course that people will attend and have a professor. And who teaches it?
Do you have to find a professor in each of these schools. How much of it is online, if anything? And I know there's a mentorship program that is linked to it. I just don't understand exactly how it works. Let's start with the schools, which are currently UC Berkeley, UCLA, Harvard, but with a little different twist, where it's an actual university course.
In each of those schools, do you find a professor who's interested in teaching it or does it work some other way?
Samantha Derrick: Yeah, so it's been a little bit different campus to campus, and one thing that has actually worked to our advantage is that this whole program started completely online and virtual because this actually started right around when the pandemic started. So we didn't really have a choice but to offer this online, so that is actually one reason we've been able to reach so many students from so many campuses.
We were able to open it up. That first course that we offered with 500 students, it was just incredible. We had students from all over the world joining us and we've been able to reach so many students because of that online offering. And it's also been challenging for us, of course, trying to innovate how to keep students engaged and active in an online community.
I think it's something a lot of organizations and classes have been going through the last couple of years with this shift in culture, but that has allowed us to reach so many more students. So at UCLA, for example, they actually allowed their students to join the online Berkeley course, but they're receiving credit through UCLA, and it's showing up as a UCLA course on their transcript.
We did need to find faculty advisors at UCLA to sign off on that.
So, we found two faculty who have been advisors for us from the beginning. We were very excited about what we were doing at UCLA and decided the best, first path forward is to get the UCLA students enrolled in the Berkeley course, take it online. Eventually, I think they want to branch out and offer their own course.
But at least for UCLA, that's how it's worked so far. Harvard offered their own independent course separate from us. So Sparsha Saha at Harvard, who's also one of our faculty advisors, and she's just incredible, took it on, took the initiative to teach it at Harvard herself and offered it independently of Berkeley, but using the curriculum that we had built and adapting it to have more of a policy program.
So that was Harvard. Stanford, similar to UCLA, their students enrolled in our course. Next year, we offer it across the 10 UC campuses. It's going to be an online virtual class, so I'm actually going to be co teaching it myself with one of my colleagues. And we're going to have students from all the UC campuses coming together virtually as well.
And the Berkeley course, which continues to run for every semester, it's been so popular among students that we started offering it every semester. It used to just be offered once a year, but we've been able to expand that offering, which has been exciting. And, the Berkeley course is actually offered in a hybrid model right now.
So students will go into Berkeley in the classroom about once or twice a month to meet with their team and the teaching team and the rest of the class is virtual. So we've been adapting and innovating each semester, getting feedback from students as far as what works, but we're always thinking about how do we deliver this education so it's most effective and most impactful for students.
Mariann Sullivan: Yeah, that's really interesting and I hope to my audience, I'm not asking too many questions about how this exactly works, because I teach and I know how complicated the schools are, I'm just fascinated that you managed to make this work. And I think really Covid probably did really help you out.
Like there was this huge revelation, which I think a lot of universities are in some resistance about now that, you know, the buildings really aren't that necessary. All of this infrastructure isn't really what it's all about.
So, all right, so I understand now everybody in the California system will be able to get credit because you have a real course there. And, in Harvard that's the same thing 'cause you had a professor there who was willing to take it on. And then in other places you're either going to try to expand that or do a certificate program. And I wanna hear about the certificate and what it involves and what advantage it is to anybody to get that certificate.
But first, I just wanna make clear, is it true that the academic level of the students in this course runs the whole gamut from undergraduate to PhD? Is it open to anybody at any level?
Samantha Derrick: Exactly. Undergrad to PhD, any academic discipline, any academic background, which has actually been the most challenging part to set up with the university to get it structured that way. But it's also been one of the most rewarding parts, both for the students and for the professional partners working with the students.
It's what we call silo busting, getting students out of their silos, getting them to think together with more of a systems lens and because our whole course revolves around food systems and systemic issues, it just makes sense that all of these students would need to come together to solve these skills and not just have it siloed in one academic department.
So that's been something at the core of what we're thinking about and how we're delivering education is how do we present this at the multidisciplinary and systemic lens? And how do we get students from different backgrounds, lived experiences? We have freshmen students who have never worked in their life all the way to PhD and master's students who've had several years of work and research experience and seeing them come together to talk about these food systems issues is just fascinating and what they deliver when you put them together in the same room and you put their minds together is just incredible and I think it every semester you just see the companies and the organizations blown away by the work that these students are producing.
Their level of talent and also just interest and dedication and commitment to wanting to work in the food system and do something about it. I mean, there has been data coming out around Gen Z students. I think 80 percent of Gen Z students are looking for careers that are in line with their values, which is higher than we've ever seen before.
And I'm even seeing something in our students that I didn't even see when I was in school, just like their level of awareness, wanting to do something about climate change, about animal rights, about social justice is just at a level that I never saw when I was in school in a conversation. So there's just a huge missed opportunity if we are not equipping these students to work for our movement to work to change the food system. They're going to go off to other jobs, and that's where universities really need to step it up. We need the talent to solve these systemic food issues. Otherwise, we're going to be faced with very scary issues and not enough people to solve them.
Mariann Sullivan: Yeah, I couldn't agree with you more. That's really, really exciting, the work that you're doing. You mentioned that people are from all different disciplines. I know you probably can't cover them all, but just give us a flavor of where people are coming from to take this course.
Samantha Derrick: Absolutely. Public health, which is a program I did, MBA students from the business school, we've had data science. Software engineering, nutrition students, really all over the spectrum. But we always have a core group of students coming from the public health program and from the business school, just because that's where the course is hosted and because it fits so well with both those topics.
You have the innovation and the entrepreneurship students coming from the business school, wanting to be involved in the sector. You have students more similar to my background, public health, nutrition, more interested in food access, food equity, addressing sytemic issues in the food sytem.
So it's really been all over the place.
Mariann Sullivan: Yeah. No, that's very exciting. And of course, it makes total sense since, you know, we all eat And we all live in the world. So those things are kind of important to everybody no matter what they're doing academically.
All right. Tell us about the certificate program. What do students get out of that?
Do they get any kind of credit at their university?
Samantha Derrick: The certificate program is actually new, it's in development, and we actually just piloted our first official certificate through the Plant Futures Initiative, which is new. And really the intention behind that is that students have recognition for the work that they're doing, something they can put on their resume, something that they can communicate to employers, without having to be enrolled at one of these campuses. So, once we started this course a few years ago, semester after semester, I mean, we were getting students from so many different campuses wanting to be part of this course. And it just felt like we were excluding a ton of students by saying, well, no, you have to be a UC Berkeley student.
And we want to make this information accessible so we're always thinking, how do we make this move faster? So the certificate is a way for students from any campus to be able to enroll in the course. We're going to be iterating with a few different courses to see what works. The first certificate program that we just launched and we actually just finished our first cohort of students is through a course called an Impact Lab, which is a shorter iteration of the Challenge Lab.
The Challenge Lab is a 14 week course that we've offered at UC Berkeley for various semesters, where they work directly with companies on a team of three to four students from different backgrounds to solve a challenge that that company is having. So everything from like Tofurky, Miyoko's, Plant Based Food Association, Daiya, some of the bigger, more established companies to some of the smaller startups, all mix of organizations.
The Impact Lab, which was offered a few months ago for the first time, is a shorter version of that. Just a few weeks, working on a smaller innovation project with the company. We think of it as just rapid exposure to industry, to organizations.
And for them, it's like, if they have a quick challenge or idea where they need the feedback of students, they have an opportunity to work on this challenge with students for a few weeks. It's quick, they get a chance to work with other students, with the company and they deliver something very incredible at the end.
Which for the company, oftentimes they'll outsource this to consultants or outside sources where they can't find that type of talent or just quick information they're looking for. And they have access to that through our program, through these students. And a lot of these students are looking for ways how do they get more hands on experience? How do they get connections to companies, to networks? They work with a mentor from the company for those few weeks as well. So they get direct mentorship.
So it's really a win win. And as a result of that course, because this is the first one that's offered independent of the traditional university system, we're offering them an independent certificate through the nonprofit instead that they can then add to their resumes, their LinkedIn, their profiles when they're searching for jobs.
Mariann Sullivan: Yeah, that seems like a great way to go, given how difficult it would be to try to get this accepted at every university. But do you have hopes that if there are enough students at a particular university or participating in this, that will encourage schools to get a little bit more on the ball about maybe signing on to your course?
Samantha Derrick: I think it will, yeah, schools do respond to students. If there is enough student demand and enough students speaking up for something, that's kind of how this happened at Berkeley. You absolutely need the faculty support, and having Will made a huge difference, but they needed to see the student interest too. And I think because we had so many hundreds of students signed up that first year, they saw the interest, like they've actually approved it to continue on semester after semester because they continue to see the student turnout and how much students are engaging with their course.
I'm hopeful that as this expands through the non profit as well, universities will respond to that. They'll see it's something that students care about and it benefits the university too, if they're offering courses that students are excited about and they want to go to that university because maybe they see the Plant Futures course offered there.
So it really is a benefit for them. And one of the unexpected things was this UC grant across all nine campuses. I don't think anyone on our team was expecting to get recognition from all nine campuses that quickly. And I think that was because they saw Berkeley and UCLA responding.
They saw how much student interest there was. So I am hopeful, like you said, as this grows that more universities will respond and hopefully make an effort to offer it through their campus as well.
Mariann Sullivan: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I definitely see that happening.
Can you just gimme a hint of what kind of projects students work on? I guess the scope of a project would be very different, depending on whether they're taking this as an academic course in California or at Harvard or doing the certificate program where they're not getting academic credit, but they're building their career.
But I guess the deliverables on the part of the student would be different, but can you give us kind of an idea of what it is that they work with and perhaps do you work with the mentors to try to come up with the good projects that would be appropriate for the students, or how does that work?
Samantha Derrick: Yeah, so we actually have a whole team and colleagues of mine who work directly with our professional partners on everything from scoping the project ahead of the class. Like what is a project that would benefit the company, but that will also benefits students, that's multidisciplinary? How do we offer something that students from all backgrounds can come together and work on to solve? And then thinking of a deliverable that would be valuable and helpful for the company. So we kind of think of it and describe it to the companies as a fast track internship, except it's a course where they're receiving academic credit, but it's similar in that structure where they're working on a real challenge that the company is having.
And we've had a whole variety of challenges. I can give you a few examples. And what's interesting is you start to see patterns across companies as the type of challenges they're having in the plant based sector. And you see a lot of companies and organizations are struggling with the same issues, whether it's how do we message this product to consumers?
Do we label this product as vegan or plant based? Who is our target audience? How do we reach Gen Z consumers with this product? How do we message the nutritional benefits of this product?
Other companies have actually worked with undergraduate students to create an entire social media, TikTok video campaign to market their product to Gen Z consumers, and for them, it was just perfect. They were basically working directly with their target audiences, the people, this audiences they wanted to reach. They had an opportunity with these students, who are just brilliant with social media, and deliver this incredible strategy that they actually took to their VP of marketing and implemented into their company, which is amazing.
We've worked with more established companies who are offering new products. We worked with one that was offering a new vegan cheese and they were trying to figure out like the cell culture fermentation process and how you communicate the health benefits to consumers. How do we make this something that consumers are going to pay attention and care about? So those are just a few examples.
We've worked more on the policy side, we've even worked with some farming organizations as well, implementing more sustainable practices. And I think one thing that makes us unique is that we offer everything from farming to CPG to policy and everything in between. And we attract students from so many different academic disciplines working on these projects and really are intentional about covering the entire food system and not just products, which students are very excited about. And products and CPG are absolutely a big part of what we do, but we cover so much more.
There's a wide breadth of topics and challenges that students are working on as well.
Mariann Sullivan: Yeah, that sounds very exciting and it also sounds really useful. I mean, I've worked at places where, you know, an intern comes in, somebody's kid or something, in the worst case scenario. The people who are working there haven't been giving any guidance about what kind of work and you know, most work in a company is not suitable for somebody who's not working there and doesn't know how to do it. So it's so helpful that you're there to work with these mentoring companies to come up with the projects where you can really be of value to them and they're not just doing you a favor. And it sounds like that's really been the case.
Samantha Derrick: Exactly. And each semester, we're learning more about what's most helpful to companies and what's most helpful for students. So we're taking all those learnings and supporting companies in that process of scoping something. I think oftentimes they have so many challenges and so many different projects students can work on they're almost overwhelmed where like, we don't know which one to choose. So we help them through that process. Let's narrow it down. Let's look at this. Let's see what's going to be the most helpful for you and also for the students.So, yeah, our team plays a big role in that.
Mariann Sullivan: Now you had mentioned before the chapter network, and that you have chapters in universities in this country and starting to have chapters in other countries as well. What exactly is the role of the chapters?
Samantha Derrick: Yeah, there were a few different ideas that came up in this conversation when we were creating the curriculum at Berkeley where the chapter network originated from. So part of it was wanting to make our programming and our resources accessible to students who are not at UC Berkeley or where our course was hosted and thinking about how to get students just engaged, not just with the course, but the broader vision of our movement, which is connecting students to jobs, to plant based food sector, to help accelerate the transition to a plant centric food system, which is really the mission we're behind, and we want to help grow this movement.
We want to support companies or students who are looking for values aligned careers, and we wanted to find a way to keep students engaged. All the students who audited that first course, that first semester, all the students reaching out to us in email. It just felt like a missed opportunity if we were only continuing to engage with UC Berkeley students.
So we were thinking, how do we do this in the meantime until we can get our curriculum everywhere? What's a way to keep students active and involved with our movement and what we're doing? So that's where the idea of student chapters came up, and it's pretty much equivalent of a student club or a student organization.
It's a chapter network where we're basically going to universities or finding the right students or faculty members, whoever's involved, or whoever's interested in this topic, plant centric food systems and activating them and guiding them and starting a community on their campus around this. And it has looked very different campus to campus.
They've done everything from career networking events, food sampling events, one of our chapters actually did a whole vegan football tailgating event, which was fascinating to see. And I think what sets this apart, at least from what I saw when I was in school, I was very active in the animal rights club, when I was an undergrad at Berkeley.
But what I noticed is that it felt very niche, very siloed. And you were kind of seeing the same people over and over. It was all the vegans or mostly vegans. So we're trying to think, how do we reach wider? How do we think bigger and reach more students? So one of the things we've done through the chapter network and have been very intentional about is the way that we message our work.
It's very plant centric. Even though a lot of our team is vegan, we don't necessarily identify ourselves as a vegan organization. It's more plant centric. And we've been able to draw so many students from different backgrounds who identify as a kind of plant curious or flexitarian. They're not quite there yet, but they're starting to think about it and they want a community they can be a part of where they don't necessarily have to feel like, Oh, well, I'm either vegan or I'm not, or I'm either an animal rights activist or I'm not.
And that has been actually a very successful strategy for us to expand across campuses. We've drawn thousands of students from different campuses to our chapter network from all different lived experiences, backgrounds. Most of them do not identify as vegan or vegetarian, which has been surprising to see.
Most of the students are not. There are many vegans and vegetarians in our course, but that's been really exciting because those are the students we're trying to reach and we want to reach with our program to get them thinking about the role of food in their life, the role of building a career in their life.
And so many students from our chapter network reach back out to us later saying that either the chapter or even the curriculum changed them to becoming vegan or to eating more plant based or to working for a plant based company. So that's where I get excited is just seeing the potential as it scales to get more students involved and aware of what we're doing.
And, one thing we've noticed in the Chapter Network too, it's also changing the culture around plant based eating, and that's what we're trying to do, making it more inclusive, making it fun, and making it exciting. So students throw plant based food parties and potlucks, like I said, we've had vegan football events and tailgates.
So we're reaching students, I mean, we've reached MBA students, PhD, Masters of Public Health, students who wouldn't normally be thinking about plant based eating, or like let's say a vegan or animal right club, but they've come to our program and I think that's where we see a lot of potential is to continue to reach these students and think outside of the box, and how to just make it a more inclusive movement. That's been our strategy and we've been very successful.
I mean, it's getting to the point where universities are reaching out to us wanting to start chapters and our team is pretty much at capacity with what we're able to do right now because we have 30 active chapters, which has been really exciting. But we are starting to think like big and globally and how it's going to look like to scale on other campuses, but it's been very exciting and it's been a learning experience for us too.
I mean, we're learning a lot. There's still a lot we don't know. There's still a lot that we adapt as we go and a lot of it, I mean, this is a student led movement, so we're always taking feedback from our students and adjusting to what speaks to them and what's most effective for them.
Mariann Sullivan: Wow. Sounds really exciting. And in your spare time, I understand you're also working on a film project, is that right?
Samantha Derrick: That's correct. Yes.
Mariann Sullivan: Can you tell us about that?
Samantha Derrick: Yeah, absolutely. One of the reasons this film project started is because we are starting a pilot program in Mexico for Plant Futures. And as we think globally, Mexico seemed like a first natural transition. One, because I'm physically living here. I have Mexican heritage, my mom is from Mexico, so I have very close ties to Mexico, and I've always seen the role of food, and food is a huge part of culture here, of course, but specifically plant based eating, and I think it's something that a lot of people are not aware of, that the native Mexican diet is actually predominantly plant based.
Like, we were eating a lot of plant based food, you see even here, the access to these huge markets of produce and fruits and vegetables. When I moved to Mexico City about a year and a half ago, in addition to just a lot of the native foods that are very accessible that are plant based, I saw this huge boom in vegan restaurants, startups, businesses that I had not seen in Mexico, even five to 10 years ago.
I mean, recently, the vegan plant based food scene here has expanded so quickly. I actually call it the vegan capital of the world because I've never seen so much vegan food concentrated in restaurants in one place. And I just saw how quickly the movement here was growing. And similar to US, how few universities were talking about plant based eating on their campuses or even equipping students. I mean, there isn't a single plant based food course that I've seen in Mexico yet, since I moved here. So we saw it as an opportunity to expand our program to Mexico and run a pilot here. So that's what we've been doing. And the film project is going to be telling the story of the plant based movement in Mexico, specifically with the role of the animal rights and how the animal rights movement has played a huge role in growing and accelerating the growth of the plant based food movement and businesses in Mexico.
There's a huge animal rights scene here, which is just incredible, and they have done so much to really grow the movement. So our video is going to put all of those pieces together. The role of the animal rights movement, the history of Mexico, how that plays into it, and everything else that's happening globally that has caused this huge rise in consumption and plant based eating in Mexico and in Latin America more broadly in recent years.
But I really see Mexico as being the leader of Latin America right now for the plant based food movement. So this film project is going to capture that story and tell the story of what's happening, as we continue to grow our program and hope to attract more students to our movement here as well.
Mariann Sullivan: Oh, that's very exciting. I can't wait to see it. Now I feel like I have to go to Mexico.
Samantha Derrick: You should come.
Mariann Sullivan: We can talk about that on our bonus segment 'cause I wanna talk about food. But before I close out this part of the interview.
I know you have a major event coming up in February and I wanna make sure that you have a chance to talk about that too.
Samantha Derrick: Yes, thank you for bringing that up. Plant Futures Fest is going to be in Oakland at the end of February, and we're super excited. This is actually our first off campus event. We've had on campus events at Berkeley. We had a big one last year that had an awesome turnout, but each year our events grow and grow and we get more students and attendees.
We wanted to host something off campus that's even bigger, more accessible to students, not just the Bay Area, but everywhere. We're going to be having students from different parts of the country joining us. We have an incredible keynote speaker, Bryant Terry. Seth Tibbitt from Tofurky's going to be there.
We have several other speakers in line that we're very excited about. And this event is going to be specifically more around Career networking and food. And of course, education is going to be built into it. Most of our events up until this point have been more educational. They've been hosted through the university.
We've had all these incredible guest speakers talk about all these amazing topics, but this is the first one that's going to be a little bit different from what we usually do. Cause again, this is feedback that we get from students and from companies. They want more food. They want more career networking opportunities.
They want more chance to just hang out and meet the community and speak. So we basically are creating what we've been talking about and envisioning and an event from feedback that we've gotten the last few years and in Oakland for the first time, which we're super excited. And we've very recently announced the event and we have early bird tickets until the end of this year for anyone in the Bay Area, really anywhere who's interested in coming from other parts of the country, too.
I'll be there and my whole team will be there, too. I'm very excited
Mariann Sullivan: You guys have a lot going on, I have to say. Uh, alright, so if there are students
listening or people who know students who are listening, what should they do to find out if there's a chapter available? And if not, find out how they can get one or how they can get a course at their university or next steps?
Samantha Derrick: Absolutely, for one, our website has most of the information you're going to need. You can actually go on our website, see a map and a list of all of the chapters that are active in our network. If you do not see your chapter there and you are interested in starting a chapter, there is contact information on there, there's a form you can fill out, or you can email someone on our team directly.
Our contact information should be on the website, but mine is easy, Samantha@plantfuturesinitiative.org. Our website is just plantfuturesinitiative.org. And the last two things and the easiest way to stay in touch with our programming and everything we're up to is our Instagram page, which is plantfuturesofficial, and subscribing to our newsletter.
You can find a link to that on our website as well, but those are the easiest ways to get in contact. And we hope that you'll join.
Mariann Sullivan: Great, and I'm sure people will because you are very inspiring. I feel like we got twice as much information into this interview as was warranted 'cause you talk really fast and you get a lot of information and that is such an enormous talent. I don't know how you think that fast.
So thank you so much for everything you're doing. You talk fast and you do things fast too, because this is amazing. I can't believe that you brainstormed the start of this during the pandemic. It just doesn't seem that long ago. So thanks for joining us today on Our Hen House. It's really been fun.
Samantha Derrick: And thank you so much for having me and for all the incredible work you're doing too. It's been really great meeting you and chatting. Appreciate it.
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This episode is sponsored in part by The Culture & Animals Foundation, which sponsors artists, scholars, and activists in our collective efforts to understand our fellow species more deeply and to further their rights. CAF provides annual grants, an arts prize, a lecture series, and a fellowship. Visit cultureandanimals.org for more information. The Culture & Animals Foundation: Think. Create. Explore. Celebrate.
This episode is brought to you in part through the generosity of A Well-Fed World. A Well-Fed World provides the means for change by empowering individuals, social justice organizations, and political decision-makers to embrace the benefits of plant-based foods and farming. Learn more at awfw.org.