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Posted on Tue, Oct 2, 2012 : 10:32 a.m.

University of Michigan Sustainable Food Program hosts first Harvest Festival Oct. 4

By Kim Bayer


Logo designed by Liz Dengate for the UM Sustainable Food Program

courtesy UM Sustainable Food Program

Editor's note: The logo attribution has been corrected.

Five years ago I was considering a career change and made an appointment with an admissions counselor at the University of Michigan's Ford School of Public Policy. When I asked him to tell me about the classes and research opportunities they could offer in the area of food policy, he gave me a quizzical look and said he had never heard of it. He assured me they had nothing whatsoever to offer in the area of food policy and food systems.

When I asked for guidance in finding something like that at the University, he told me that it didn't exist but I could check the faculty directory. This Thursday, Oct. 4, as the University of Michigan's Sustainable Food Program embarks on its first Harvest Festival held at the UM Student Farm, I see what a difference five years can make.

Driven in large part by students, food and sustainability have become important issues on campus. Lindsey MacDonald, a master's student at SNRE, is one of four program managers for UM's Sustainable Food Program. She describes UMFSP as " an umbrella organization for student groups addressing food-related issues across campus. By bringing together students, faculty, staff, and community members, we are fostering collaborative leadership that empowers students to create a sustainable food system at the University of Michigan while becoming change agents for a vibrant planet."

MacDonald outlines three main priorities for the group:
1. Developing Responsible Citizens and Leaders by facilitating formal and informal education on sustainable food topics
2. Strengthening Communities through collaborative programming and outreach
3. Growing Sustainable Foods that support the well-being of people and the environment at the University of Michigan and beyond

I had the opportunity to ask MacDonald more about the Harvest Festival taking place at Matthaei Botanical Gardens from 4-8 p.m. Oct. 4 and about the role of students in food and sustainability at the University in general.

KB: What is the goal of the Harvest Festival?
LM: The Harvest Festival will bring together University of Michigan students, staff, and faculty as well as Ann Arbor community members to celebrate sustainable food. With the goal of gathering people from diverse cross-sections of the community, we envision local food champions and their families, UM students and faculty from across academic disciplines, our supporters and volunteers, and potential future collaborators all eating, learning, and celebrating the harvest season together.

Through this event, UMSFP will spread the word about our new endeavors, aspirations, and challenges around campus while cultivating community relationships that will be integral to our success in the future. However, the goal is not just to promote UMSFP but also to recognize and celebrate other local food champions in Ann Arbor.

KB: Who else is involved in putting the fest together?
LM: Matthaei Botanical Gardens is hosting the event and has been an invaluable resource for logistics and publicity. Our UMSFP member groups, student groups who have joined the program, have been donating time, effort, and volunteers as well. These groups include Cultivating Community, the Michigan Sustainable Food Initiative, Brassica--the Ann Arbor Student Food Stand, Friends of the Campus Farm, UM Bees, and the Outdoor Adventures Garden Crew.

The University Unions will be serving up their own seasonal dishes using produce from their local farm partners. Lastly, the event wouldn't be possible without the sponsorship of U of M's Central Student Government and donations from U of M and Ann Arbor community members.

KB: Why are these food programs important UM initiatives?
LM: The University of Michigan creates leaders that go on to make powerful impacts all over the world. If these leaders can learn just a little bit about sustainable food and take that with them to their leadership positions, we could make tremendous positive change for food sustainability. In order to provide students with this knowledge, there is much work to do. We must step up to the challenge by building a farm for experiential learning, by creating the organizational structure for faculty, staff, students, and community to come together on this topic, and by converting student visions into action.

Students are stepping up to make this happen. Students have great energy and come from diverse places, which contributes to the interdisciplinary fabric of this program. The Harvest Festival and UMSFP are trying to harness that energy to make positive change at UM. These initiatives are important because they allow students to creatively tackle problems that occur in our broader society.

KB: What are other food-related initiatives that are happening at UM?
LM: The Central Student Government has taken an active interest in food and now hosts MFarmers' markets selling fresh produce and prepared food straight to students and staff. MHealthy is also working to set up food kiosks in buildings across campus. Classes are forming to discuss hot food topics and really start to increase the breadth and depth of food education on campus. There is also a cluster hire of faculty focused on sustainable food in five different departments in progress. There are student groups focused on community gardens, food labeling in dining halls, and fresh food access, just to name a few.

KB: Why do you think these are happening now?
LM: The momentum is strong right now. Between the discussions of climate change, the Universities Integrated Assessment results, the tremendous success stories in the surrounding community, President Coleman’s acknowledgement of the importance of sustainability, and strong student leadership to get this program off of the ground, this topic will continue to explode with interest.

KB: How much of a difference does the food and sustainability landscape at a university make in choosing which one to attend?
LM: Sustainability matters for this generation of students. Different studies say different things specifically about how much it matters, but I can say with certainty that campus farms are popping up in universities and colleges all over the country, and I don’t just mean small schools, and I don’t just mean agriculture schools. Many of our peer institutions are already growing food that is provided to students, faculty, and staff right on campus.

KB: What do you hope UM will be doing five years from now that it is not currently doing?
LM: Our number one priority is securing funding for a full-time program/farm manager, but we hope to have that completed by the end of the year. In five years, we hope to have a community supported agriculture system set-up, a hoop house, satellite gardens in visible places around campus, internship opportunities for students, leadership development programming associated with the farm, strong partnerships with community groups, and formalized cross-disciplinary learning.

KB: Why are students getting involved with food initiatives?
LM: Students want to make a tangible difference, they want to contribute to something bigger than themselves, they appreciate the community that forms around food, they know that the current industrial system cannot continue like it is, and they love potlucks

NOTE: Tickets to the Harvest Festival are available in advance and at the door. The event features music from Dragon Wagon, Magdelene Fossum, and the Crane Wives, along with fun and educational activities and a lovely meal that University Catering is sourcing from three local farms, including Goetz, Lesser and Todisciuk farms.

Kim Bayer is a freelance writer and culinary researcher. Email her at kimbayer at gmail dot com.