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Ishma Iqbal, International Food Justice Graduate Research Fellow

Ishma Iqbal
Ishma Iqbal

Pursuing a Master of Arts in International Studies, Ishma Iqbal brought with her to DePaul a variety of experiences from her home country of Bangladesh as well as from time spent studying in China. During winter and spring 2017, she had an opportunity to apply her education in Chicago through a research fellowship that targets food justice locally, nationally and internationally. Iqbal received the International Food Justice Graduate Research Fellowship, a pilot project jointly designed by the Steans Center and the Department of International Studies in the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences. 

Through the fellowship, Iqbal spent 100 hours over three months working with the Chicago office of Food Chain Workers Alliance (FCWA), a national coalition of worker-based organizations whose members organize  to improve wages and working conditions for all workers along the food chain. The Alliance works to build a more sustainable food system that includes respect for workers’ rights,  social, environmental and racial justice, and access to healthy and affordable food.​

Iqbal brought a unique perspective to her role at FCWA. She went to high school in Bangladesh and completed an undergraduate degree in economics and finance at the University of Hong Kong. During her final year studing in Hong Kong, she worked for a nonprofit fair employment agency interviewing domestic workers about recruitment for jobs, learning about what challenges they faced. Upon returning to Bangladesh, she interned at the Yunus Centre under the  Nobel Laureate Professor Muhammad Yunus. Yunus was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 for founding the Grameen Bank and pioneering the concepts of microfinance and microlending.  At the Centre, she was responsible for supporting the social business team and working on a group internship project.

“While I was doing this work,” Iqbal says, “I realized that my interest lies in development and social work.” That interest led her to DePaul and the graduate program in International studies. She was especially impressed with how the university responded to her – a prospective student who was new to the field.  “I tried contacting faculty members, and their response was so friendly and warm.”

Iqbal says that when she came to DePaul, she had no background in the food industry. After learning about the global food system in the course INT 408 Nature, Power, and Society, which explores environmental justice and social and political equity issues, she came across the fellowship and recalls, “I really connected to it. I learned about how the food industry is so large – but that so many workers still receive minimum wage.”

Heidi Nast, a professor of International Studies at DePaul, says that the fellowship fills a need - students  want to know what work in the social justice world would look like.” She adds that Iqbal’s experience can “help our department and the Steans Center understand how the fellowship worked – and how we can keep making the most of these partnerships.”

During the fellowship, Iqbal worked with Jose Oliva, co-director of the Food Chain Workers Alliance. She helped organize a food policy summit and also conducted research on the Good Food Purchasing Policy (GFPP). GFPP is a comprehensive and metric-based food procurement policy where government institutions work with food service providers, distributors, processors and growers to create a transparent ‘farm-to-fork’ food supply. The policy focuses on developing a food justice framework that addresses issues in five value categories across the food system: local economies, environmental sustainability, fair labor, animal welfare and nutrition. Iqbal's work helped promote the implementation of GFPP in Chicago.

Oliva credits Iqbal with helping the movement for the GFPP “push until it got over the finish line in Chicago.” In particular, he says that the GFPP will “effect over $80 million worth of food that the Chicago Public Schools buys – helping to make sure that it is healthier, more local and that it contributes to improving wages and working conditions in the food system.”

“Ishma’s contribution helped ensure that folks who were already part of the coalition were activated and engaged in the movement for the GFPP. This involved developing materials, making phone calls, sending emails – and generally being a good advocate and organizer for that process. She was fantastic,” Oliva adds.  “And her personality worked really well with members – she was easygoing but very serious and professional.”

Iqbal says she truly benefited from the experience. “Now that I have some experience in the food industry, I see that there’s a need for more people to get involved and that these workers are greatly neglected.” She adds that the fellowship can be a great opportunity for students who are prepared to work independently and manage their time between courses and work in the community.  “Most of all, I felt that people were really committed to this cause – they are very passionate about what they are doing and want to make sure it has an effect on the community.”​​​

Iqbal's work will definitely contribute to communities and to improving Chicago's food system.  The City Council of Chicago passed Resolution 2017-727 "Adoption and implementation of Good Food Purchasing Program standards​" on October 11, 2017.