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Staff Profile: Kavita Koppa

Why is our food system structured such that farmers can’t afford to buy the very food they produce? Do for-profit companies have the power to effect positive social change? What would it look like to build a system that genuinely moves beyond extractive models of food production and consumption?

These are just some of the questions that Kavita Koppa has been grappling with across more than a dozen years in agriculture. With experience in nonprofit, for-profit, and cooperative sectors, Kavita continues to probe deep into the gray areas of justice, equity, and sustainability in agriculture as RAFI’s Director of Farm Access.

Katvita (Kuh-vee-thuh) was born and raised in Irmo, a Columbia, South Carolina suburb. An introverted child, she enjoyed reading, exploring the outdoors, tap dancing, and thwarting her parents’ attempts to involve her in competitive sports. Her family came from South India, and Kavita is grateful that her parents prioritized taking her to visit the region every few years, an experience which she says profoundly expanded her ability to understand different cultures and ways of living.

Kavita also recalls the positive influence of several teachers during her school years: “I had a couple of science teachers, primarily in high school, that really encouraged me to ask questions about the world. In retrospect, that was a much more important lesson than I realized it was at the time. It really forced me to think about things from a systems level, and not to be afraid to poke and prod to really understand what was going on.”

Her first experience working on a farm in southern Arizona was eye-opening. “I was seeing how many different pieces of work that a single farmer was constantly putting together just to make some income,” like driving hundreds of miles to California every week to be the only person at the farmer’s market selling dates. As one of only two people of color working on the Arizona farm, Kavita noticed very quickly the racial dynamics of things like marketing and finances: “There were little things, like when they wanted to get a loan to get more land, they were very strategic about who was going to show up to that meeting, how they were going to dress, and how they were going to talk. They knew what was up.”

At another small farm that she managed, the owners of the operation hadn’t done any of the preparation needed to support a new employee financially. That experience was influential in teaching her how to stand up for herself and also helping her understand the extreme financial pressures farmers face and the need for better financial planning and preparation.

Kavita worked at RAFI from 2013 to 2016. Before returning to RAFI in 2023, her last few positions have been in the private sector. During that time, “I got a really interesting insight into how money in climate movements works. Where are the flaws, how is it connected to what farmers really need, how is is not connected to what farmers need, who are the types of farmers they’re even considering in that picture?” She wrestled with the harsher realities of how companies seeking to advance social or environmental progress must still balance the demands of running a for-profit business. Often, these companies can only “sort of soften the edges of extractive capitalist systems.”

Those kinds of organizations are needed, Kavita says, but she is especially grateful for intermediary organizations like RAFI that work to move even further beyond extractive models. When she returned to RAFI, she served as a Special Projects Manager where she collaborated across programs to provide operational support and help get projects to the next step. In May 2024, she transitioned to lead RAFI’s new Land Access project, which will provide technical assistance and funding for farmers in North Carolina, Florida, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Moving forward, Kavita believes that strategies to create change in the food system must be farmer-centered and prioritize active, inclusive listening. She is also passionate about finding ways to effectively move money to communities that need it. Envisioning the path to a better system can be challenging, and the work is rife with trial and error, but Kavita embraces the idea that there is always more to learn. “Maybe in the nerdiest of tones, this is a little bit of a scientific experiment, right? We have a hypothesis of what might work based on what farmers tell us, and we’ll try it out and see.”

“I love working in a place that says, we’re gonna go deep and wonky and technical, but also be very empathic and live in the gray because the gray is the reality. And that’s how my brain works too: living in the gray. That’s why I’m here.”

Outside of work, Kavita enjoys gardening, making pottery, and caring for her sassy rescue dog. She also spends time reading about Indian diasporas in different parts of the world and learning about the histories of solidarity between different racial justice movements. “I feel like I’m sort of on a constant journey of understanding, particularly when I think about racial equity and understanding my own role in it. So I really love learning the history of my own people in the broader context of racial equity.”

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