Director of Urban Family Development and Evaluation, University of Minnesota Extension Center for Family Development
Mary Marczak—Director of Urban Family Development and Evaluation at the University of Minnesota Extension Center for Family Development—is extremely humble about her past. When she speaks about her efforts to help educate recent immigrants about food systems in the United States, she notes the personal reasons that drive her to dedicate her life to improving food access.
As a young child, Mary lived on the streets of South Korea. As a homeless youth, she spent years struggling to find enough food to survive. Her young life was dominated by the never-ending need to seek out daily sustenance. It was through a series of various interventions that she was able to rise above the trauma of her youth, and go on to help others with similar issues.
Health and Family Resiliency
Mary is an upbeat woman who takes time to laugh and stay positive as she works on some of the most difficult and complex social issues of our time. Her past has made her passionate about the Center for Family Development’s work on connecting two programmatic areas—health and family resiliency. Mary’s role is to direct applied research and evaluation of family programs.
She says the work is not nearly as dry as it sounds, with its focus on numbers, assessments, and evaluations. “Evaluation is a basic human right, especially in communities with a history of voicelessness within a system that works against their needs,” she explains.
Mary knows that when people go into communities they aren’t part of and tell them—as outsiders—how to change their lives for the better, it’s important to have evidence to prove the changes they’re suggesting will benefit the community. Ensuring the facts are there to back up actions is a beneficial part of her organization’s work, which, she says, aligns with and draws from the Minnesota Food Charter.
Food Systems Change Rock Stars
As someone whose work involves large-scale food systems change, Mary believes that Minnesotans are “rock stars” when it comes to readiness for change and efforts regarding food systems changes. She believes that, as a state, we are much more receptive to and even eager for this type of large-scale re-envisioning of our relationship to food than many other states in the nation. Mary believes the momentum, enthusiasm, and energy behind the Minnesota Food Charter is indicative of this eagerness for change. However, she’s not sure if the momentum can be sustained if issues of geographic and economic disparity in food access work are not addressed.
“Ensuring that underrepresented groups have power over their own food choices, as well as knowledge of how to maneuver the system, is crucial to creating a system that works for all,” Mary explained. “Having actions to back up our words is essential to the efforts of grassroots organizations, academic institutions, and all others working to create the large-scale food systems change that many Minnesotans envision.”
Hope for the Future
In contrast to the current narrative of young people wanting leave the family farm, she has witnessed many Millennials excited about a return to the land and to a way of life that allows their families to live closer to nature. She finds herself excited about this shift in social consciousness. She sees the desire of many young people to become truly self-sufficient, including producing their own food and energy, as visionary.
She is excited to see the creative, optimistic plans and ideas of so many Millennials, and delighted that they are willing to push accepted boundaries within the food system world and the social order as a whole. Witnessing the hope and dedication of these young Minnesotans who are working for food systems change, and who are willing to work the land themselves, gives her hope for the future.