Roots to Work: the food partnership officer

Community Food Partnership Officer and IFSTAL alumni, Sara Azeem, tells us about what inspired her to work in the food system and her hopes for tackling big issues through food sovereignty. 

What's your role in the sustainable food and farming sector? 

I am currently in the process of setting up a local food network in Ipswich at Community Action Suffolk as Community Food Partnership Officer. Along with my colleagues in other districts, we aspire to bring these together to develop a community-led food partnership across Suffolk. 

What was your route into this sector? 

Studying Economics and Global Sustainable Development at the University of Warwick, I always knew I wanted a career in sustainability, although the focus on the food sector was unexpected. Despite always having a passion for food, my interest in it as a career was ignited during a module on Security, Sovereignty, and Sustainability in the Global Food System. This led me to complete the IFSTAL (Interdisciplinary Food Systems Teaching & Learning) programme alongside my degree. I tried to get as much experience as possible beyond academia; in the Climate Change team at Coventry City Council, I engaged with the Coventry Food Network to support their post-COVID transition beyond emergency food provision. Subsequently, working with Sustain on the Bridging the Gap programme, I researched various approaches to make organic food accessible to individuals on low incomes.

What’s the best thing about the work you do? 

I thoroughly enjoy closely collaborating with grassroots community organisations. Being on the ground, connecting with these organisations and communities, and witnessing how a simple connection or the seed of an idea can contribute to impactful outcomes is truly rewarding.

What challenges or obstacles have you faced in your career and how have you overcome them?    

Finding entry-level roles was a bit of a challenge. What turned things around was broadening my job search. I opted for a more open approach since I knew I wanted to be in the sector but wasn't entirely sure about the specific role. I also don’t really know how career progression works in the sector. Still figuring that out.

Why do think younger graduates and jobseekers are attracted to working in the sustainable food sector? 

Whether it's contributing to environmental protection, animal welfare, health, or overall wellbeing, the sector offers a meaningful sense of direction. The food sector is quite intricate, and filled with challenges on all fronts. With the added factors of climate change and the current political landscape, things are only becoming more complex. However, it's also incredibly rewarding. There's a constant stream of innovation, a universal demand (everyone needs to eat!), and a profound sense of purpose.

Who or what inspires your work in this movement? 

I draw inspiration from the warmth of home, the feeling of sitting around a homecooked meal with loved ones. I’ve been privileged to enjoy that, and it is a reality that I wish for everyone, in some capacity. 

My grandmother, who always emphasised the importance of being a good person, serves as a guiding light in my life. Her actions exemplified what spreading goodness looks like, and I strive to follow in her footsteps.

I believe that the food system holds the key to a lot of the world's problems, from mitigating climate change to improving health outcomes and empowering all parts of society. I am constantly inspired by the amazing people all over the world doing great things, at different scales, but with the same fervent passion to see a better world. 

What are your hopes for the future? 

I hope that my role can foster a community that grows, cooks, and enjoys access to healthy, affordable food. A Suffolk where everyone feels in control of their lives and connected to their food. An energetic, community-led partnership that will tackle the root causes of food poverty, connect farmers and community growers to the local food economy, and reduce food waste in the county. Too big? Let’s see!

What advice would you give to anyone that is passionate about sustainable food systems and wants to work in this sector? 

Keep an open mind about the different ways to get into the sector. The food system is so diverse – you can find it at various scales like farms, community gardens, restaurants, homes, greengrocers, and supermarkets. It spans different stages from production and processing to retail. It's even woven into other sectors like waste management, catering, international relations, airlines, and healthcare (just a few random examples). Just experiment! At least, that’s what I’m trying to do.

Find out more about Sara's work at Community Action Suffolk or connect with her on LinkedIn

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Main picture: Food partnership officer Sara Azeem. Credit: Sara Azeem