Community Development and Applied Economics
UVM is the Hub of Food Systems Research
Kolodinsky Leads Campus-Wide Research and Collaboration Effort
- By Cheryl Dorschner
Jane Kolodinsky is helping to position the University of Vermont to be a food systems leader nationwide. And she’s not the only one.
The phrase “food systems” is as prevalent in research circles nowadays as “ecological” and “sustainable” were before it. The United States Department of Agriculture, National Science Foundation and other major research funders have targeted food systems in their requests for major proposals.
“UVM and Vermont are leaders in food systems right now, but the rest of the country is running fast to catch up,” says Kolodinsky, who in 2010 was named chair of UVM’s steering committee on interdisciplinary food systems research. “We need to stake our claim, we need to be the people that people want to talk to when they talk about food systems. We need to be first, we need to be bold and we need to be the best,” she told a crowd on campus at UVM’s Food Systems Symposium in November.
And Kolodinsky stressed that this is not just a UVM project, rather, “an effort of Vermont and for all of Vermont.” As director of UVM’s Center for Rural Studies’ and its new Food System Research Collaborative, she worked with two other departments to create a food systems minor in 2010. Kolodinsky has her finger on the pulse of the food systems trend.
And she is backed by a cadre of research scientists, educators and outreach professionals. More than 60 UVM researchers and 20 Vermont speakers convened at that Symposium to share work and raise issues and opportunities.
There’s a palpable excitement, optimism and urgency around this “farm-to-fork” topic. And the conduit for much of that energy is Kolodinsky’s 2009-2012 USDA Community Development Resources and Food System Research in Vermont grant secured with help from U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy.
While the grant is broad and covers other aspects that benefit Vermonters, one of our goals is to increase communication, collaboration and research about food systems in Vermont, “much of the funding goes right to Vermont communities,” says Kolodinsky, through programs such as VT FEED and Food Education Every Day.
In other projects such as the Food System Research Collaborative, “we are trying to increase collaborations that link UVM researchers with community organizations to further food systems research and enhance work on the ground in Vermont and beyond,” she says. “This year we will fund three to four projects up to $12,000 each for organizations partnering with UVM researchers to answer one of their food systems problems. Grant winners will be announced in February.”
Tangible results of earlier partnerships were published recently in a new working paper series. One discussed whether Vermont’s flourishing Farm-to-School programs will impact childhood obesity; another looked to France and Quebec for insights on how Vermont can develop place-based agricultural products; one considered possibilities in raw milk, organic and artisan products in light of trends in milk prices and another promoted entrepreneurial Vermont businesswomen adding Internet to their marketing strategies. The next series will be published in 2011.
How UVM Got a Head Start
UVM is ahead of the food systems trend because it has long been positioned in this area and because, as one of the nation’s small premier research universities, it is nimble enough to take advantage of this recent concentration of funding. “In 2006, we were already beginning the food systems concept co-founding the Food Systems Leadership Institute with Ohio State University and North Carolina State University to develop institutional leadership for the 21st Century food systems. Two years ago we created the Food System Research Collaborative between community organizations and UVM Researchers as a clearinghouse for of the food systems work being done in Vermont currently,” says Kolodinsky.
“I think that food systems work is so urgent now because of a decline in our agricultural economy at the national level, growth in obesity related health problems, anticipation of climate change induced impacts on food production, increased awareness of food safety impacts and rising food prices in the midst of recession,” Kolodinsky says. “They are all linked, and we need to understand the complexity on a more systematic basis.”
“It is an exciting time to be doing food-systems work at the University of Vermont. Over a short time we increased the number of undergraduate course offerings, created a minor, developed a master’s program, launched the food systems spire of excellence, published a working paper series and conducted more research,
The work that we do goes beyond campus and into the community. With Vermont as our laboratory and in partnership with numerous organizations, UVM is positioned to be a national leader in food systems teaching, research, and outreach. As we continue to move forward with this work, it is important to keep making connections and maintaining communication,” writes Research Specialist Jessica Hyman on the food systems website.