University of Vermont

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Food System Scientists, Stakeholders and Students Share Ideas

Four faculty list ideas for small grants.
Breaking into small groups they brainstormed criteria for some planning grants available to start the process. For example, faculty members from left, Yiting Chang (education), Deborah Neher (plant and soil science), Binta Colley (elementary education) and Elizabeth Berman (UVM libraries) put their heads together at UVM’s Food System Symposium on Nov. 1 on campus. ~Cheryl Dorschner photo.

What connects farm-to-school programs, research on patients' immune response to obesity, and student-driven engineering projects that help farmers? They are all part of the University of Vermont's food system activities. From laboratory studies of enzymes in fermented beverages to community activities that have students measuring lunch waste in local schools, UVM faculty, staff and community partners are exploring and explaining food systems in Vermont and around the world.

These leaders displayed and discussed this food system-related scholarship and outreach on Nov. 1, at the Davis Center during UVM's first Food Systems Symposium. Fifteen presenters described their work, and linked it to the kind of transdisciplinary thinking that is needed to solve challenging food system problems. Fifty others, including many local food organizations that collaborate with UVM, presented posters. These posters described topics from regional food hubs and research on the health of cows, to innovative new energy systems that use landfill gas to power greenhouse and fish production. Summaries of another 90 UVM projects were distributed at the symposium to increase awareness UVM's overall capacity in food systems and to encourage future collaboration.

The initial goals were for scientists, students and stakeholders to show each other what is already being done at UVM -- each in their own areas of study -- and to see how they can work together across those disciplines. Already 90 research and outreach projects are indentified with this potential. The projects range from basic research at the molecular level to outreach efforts in rural communities locally, regionally, and across the globe.

Addressing more than 200 attendees, UVM’s former provost and current president of the Windham Foundation, John Bramley, noted that “our current food system is not creating a healthy nation, but the U.S. food culture is changing; by discovering an interest in farms, local food, food culture and health – and Vermont is at center of this discovery.”

Vermont’s Secretary of Agriculture, Roger Allbee told the gathering that “today and going forward is an opportunity; an opportunity for leadership, time to take some risks, to chart some new courses of action with new collaboration models.”  

Vermont’s Commissioner of Health, Wendy Davis, explained that transdisciplinary food systems research at UVM would help her department fulfill its mission to protect and promote optimal health for all Vermonters. From protecting food safety to improving dietary behavior, there are common goals for state agencies and the University.

Armando Valleseca, Vermont’s Commissioner of Education, added that food system research aimed at child nutrition could be of significant help in the efforts to promote the well being of Vermont’s children, 36 percent of which receive free or reduced lunches at their schools.

UVM’s “Food System Spire of Excellence” was approved by the UVM Board of Trustees earlier this year, along with two other cross collaborative areas in which UVM already shows research and teaching leadership and hopes to distinguish itself nationwide. The potential for collaboration across Spires was clear at the Symposium, especially when small groups worked to identify key topics that could be targeted for planning grants.

The next steps in developing the Food Systems Spire will be guided by a steering committee of faculty charged with collaborating across disciplines and with partners outside UVM to secure research funding.

In his closing remarks, Chuck Ross, State Director for the office of Sen. Patrick Leahy, summed up the Food Systems Spire by saying, “this work will create products and knowledge of value to others that we can export, further deepening our capacity and quality of life here in Vermont while also helping people and communities beyond Vermont, showing them what is possible.”


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