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Anthropologist Honored for Planting Urban Agriculture Research Program

Sara Johnson Receives CSU's 2019 Faculty Innovation and Leadership Award
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When Sara Johnson joined Cal State Fullerton’s Division of Anthropology nearly 20 years ago, she dreamed of a program that would give students opportunities to conduct research while also improving local food systems.

Her dream came to fruition in 2011 when she founded the Urban Agriculture Community-based Research Experience (U-ACRE), an award-winning program that involves students in research focused on food insecurity, nutritional sufficiency, environmental justice and sustainable agriculture. 

In recognition of her efforts, the professor of anthropology has been named a 2019 recipient of the California State University’s Faculty Innovation and Leadership Awards. The award acknowledges CSU faculty members who have demonstrated leadership to improve student success and outcomes in courses with traditionally low success rates or persistent equity gaps.

Approximately 300 service-learning students and 50 stipend-supported fellows have participated in U-ACRE to date, working with K-12 schools, nonprofit and community organizations to identify specific problems and actively contribute to designing and conducting research.

“The elements of U-ACRE came together over many years,” said Johnson. “CSUF’s teacher-scholar model came to life for me by involving students in research. As more studies delineated the benefits of experiential learning, I increasingly wanted to bring it into my classes.

“U-ACRE builds student confidence to excel in classes, to persist through challenges, to continue their education beyond their undergraduate degree, and to pursue careers that they may have thought out of reach or may not have known existed,” she explained.

Largely funded by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture’s Hispanic-Serving Institutions Education Grants Program, U-ACRE has garnered approximately $1.7 million in external funding and has received such honors as a 2017 Best Practice Award from the California Higher Education Sustainability Conference and a 2014 New York Life Higher Education Civic Engagement Award.

Melanie Nhan, a business administration major, recently shared in an Orange County Register article how participating in U-ACRE has enhanced her educational experience.

“U-ACRE welcomed me with open arms and gave me the opportunity to enrich my passions,” she wrote. “As I work on the projects, I’m able to use my skills as a student in the Mihaylo College of Business and Economics to … make connections between the commerce world and the agriculture projects. This was exactly what I hoped to find upon entering Cal State Fullerton — the connection between my passion and my academic career. In these programs that break barriers and allow for the mentoring of individuals with shared interests and drive, I am able to thrive as a Titan.”

Selected from more than 230 nominees, Johnson will receive a $5,000 cash award and $10,000 will be allocated to her academic department for ongoing activities. She and 18 other honorees from the CSU system, will be recognized at the Graduation Initiative 2025 Symposium in mid-October.

To learn more about supporting the U-ACRE program, contact Sara Johnson at or Alina Mircea-Trotz, senior director of development for the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, at