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Educating from the Ground Up: A Vision for a Resilient Miami Valley Food Shed

Educating from the Ground Up builds a data platform to integrate small-scale, locally-farmed produce into a large-scale food supply chain.

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Written by

Lead Applicant Organization Name

Miami University Institute for Food

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Researcher Institution

If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide the names of other organizations and types of stakeholders collaborating with you.

Oxford Farmers’ Market, Talawanda School District

Website of Legally Registered Entity

http://www.educatingfromthegroundup.org/#/

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • 3-10 years

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?

Oxford, Ohio

Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?

United States of America

Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?

Miami River Valley Food Shed, centered on Oxford, Ohio, covers and area of 995 square miles.

What country is your selected Place located in?

United States of America

Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

The Miami Valley Foodshed is our home, and a place where we have chosen to re-build a diversified midwestern food system.  The Institute for Food is a University-affiliated farm and CSA operating in the Miami Valley.  The Oxford Farmer’s Market is the largest local market for small farmers in the Miami Valley Foodshed.  Each of these efforts represents a huge commitment to vision of our Foodshed that is sustainable for people and nature.  Each also represents a divergence from the dominant forms of agriculture and eating that exist in the Miami Valley at present.  We see the Miami Valley as a unique area in the United States, where diversified agriculture could meet many of the food needs of the existing population.  While this dream is far from our current reality of commodity corn and soy, we see tremendous opportunities for revitalizing our part of Ohio around the vision of feeding ourselves. Many stakeholders in the Miami Valley Foodshed are further connected to our area because of Miami University—the Foodshed’s largest employer, and a place where many in our community have received their higher education.  

We love that the University that anchors our community is surrounded by farmland.  For many University students, attending school in the Miami Valley may be the closest they will ever live to working farms.  Many of us feel a deep sense of commitment to the idea that Oxford/ the Miami Valley should be a living classroom for college students, pointing the direction toward how we can live sustainably—the direction we must all take if we wish to share a livable future.  We are concerned that we often fail our students in demonstrating the viability of a more locally-focused food system—sending them out into the urban world without ever having given them the chance to experience the challenges and opportunities of local agriculture.  We are passionate about changing this paradigm.     

Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.

The Miami River Valley Foodshed is located in Southwest Ohio abutting eastern Indiana.  While adjacent cities to the east (Hamilton and Middletown, Ohio) rose and declined in the industrial cycles of the past two centuries, the largely agrarian Miami River Valley Foodshed is anchored by the University town of Oxford Ohio (population 13,000), home of Miami University of Ohio (enrolled population: ~20,000).  Far from major population centers, and without the research agenda of a typical land-grant University, Oxford and its surrounding Miami River Valley Foodshed have been a fertile area for experimental collaboration on topics ranging from beekeeping (Lorenzo Langstroth invented the modern beehive in Oxford in the 1850s) to environmental education.  

Today, the bulk of the food consumed at Miami University and Oxford, Ohio arrives as part of the global food supply chain.  Similarly, the great majority of land in the Miami River Valley Foodshed is occupied by corn and soy commodity crops.  Despite this, the area is one of tremendous potential for the re-establishment of a local food economy.   

Farming in the Miami Valley is in need of revitalization.  In the ten years between 2002 and 2012, the 8 counties in Southwest Ohio have witnessed a 10% decline in the number of farms operated by full owners. Between 2002 and 2007, the number of principal operators in farming decreased 13%. The demographics of farmers reflect additional challenges to farming in Ohio.

On the consumer side, Miami University and Oxford, Ohio have undertaken a number of projects that indicate a strong desire for a more robust local food economy, including a Food Co-Op, a Farmers’ Market, and a small CSA owned by the University.  Though the University is a major economic driver, people in the Miami River Valley Foodshed still suffer from many of the population health challenges associated with the rust belt-- ranging from food insecurity, to unemployment, to the damage of the opioid/ fetanyl crisis.  A regenerative local food economy could provide the answers to these challenges.

Layered on top of the human costs of our current food system are a range of environmental justice concerns, many related industrial agriculture.  Streams in the 4-Mile Watershed that surrounds Oxford have been listed as “impaired” by the Ohio EPA.  Much of the contamination of these bodies is related to fertilizer, herbicide and pesticide runoff.  There is a strong ethos toward conservation and land stewardship in our area, but often a disconnect on how we can achieve both economic stability and rehabilitate our environment.  We see a local economy that supports small, sustainable agriculture as an important part of the solution.  


What is the approximate size of your Place, in square kilometers? (New question, not required)

2577

Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.

The Miami Valley Foodshed arrives at the year 2020 with many environmental assets from a food systems perspective.  Our region has traditionally received enough rain during the growing season that farmers rarely irrigate their crops.  Though freezing winter temperatures make it difficult to grow year-round, the region’s soils are heavy and rich. While there is some loss of farmland to development and poor management, our region is just outside the extensive sprawl of greater Cincinnati, and much of our land continues to be used as farmland, and for habitat restoration through our local land-trust and in our local Hueston Woods State Park. 

At the same time, it is clear that the Miami Valley Foodshed is hardly immune from the effects of a rapidly changing climate.  As the winters warm, domestic and exotic pests and plant diseases expand their range and successfully overwinter.  Many forms of local agriculture are in decline, including maple syrup and apples, as the winter becomes less predictable.  The natural ecosystems we once relied upon to help keep pests in check are struggling with population and biodiversity losses.  Local researchers participated in the recent Cornell Lab study the indicated that bird populations have declined across the Midwest by as much as 30% since 1970.  Similarly, our pollinator populations so critical to our food system are also struggling. Data suggest that 27% of the honeybee colonies were lost in the winter of 2018-2019 due to the range of ailments associated with colony collapse disorder.

Our environmental challenges and opportunities are connected to a wide range of dietary, health, and economic challenges for our population, many of which are likely to be exacerbated by climate change.  Unfortunately, current policy does not favor the transformation we need.  Most farmers are caught in a debt cycle that makes them beholden to patented seeds, heavy use of fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides, and drives them to maximize the land under tillage.  There are few incentives for regenerative agriculture, or for growing a diversity of crops.  Without a price on carbon or any regulation of CO2 emissions, there is little market for carbon sequestration.  Miami University, the largest institutional purchaser in our area, must operate within this existing economic system.  As of 2020, they have decommissioned much of their on-site food preparation infrastructure, relying instead on providers like Sysco and large processing facilities.  Though the University is surrounded by farmland, most students are disconnected from where the food they eat is grown.  Without a food vision, this separation is likely to only become more pronounced. 

Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

If national and state policy provided incentives and price signals, restoring ecosystems and re-building our region’s diverse agricultural economy would offer increased employment in many sectors, ranging from professional services (arborists, scientists) to the trades (building, contracting) to farming.  Our present, globalized food model seeks to minimize cost, which means minimizing more costly US labor.  By re-orienting toward local sourcing and processing of a greater percentage and assortment of foods, we may experience higher costs, but also higher employment, healthier diets, and greater control over the methods used to grow our food, and more opportunities to close the nutrient cycle, reducing and re-using organic matter.

While there are many aspects of the current economic system beyond our control, we feel that the strength of our vision and our local commitment can help us realize a local food economy.  We wish to begin by integrating our local produce into the food culture and operations of Miami University.  


High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.

Barriers to the inclusion of our locally-grown food at the University will be overcome using a combination of technologies and strategic investments.  

  • While ample local produce is available during the Fall Term, a strategic combination of season extension, root cellaring, freezer storage and processing technologies will be needed to provide local produce during the University’s Spring Term.  Investment in a local food processing facility is an important part of our vision.  Education and engagement of students with the growing process will help build understanding for seasonal eating.
  • Technology will be leveraged to help farmers plan and plant to match demand.  On the University side, this technology platform will build administrative trus and supply data showing that targeted local produce can be supplied locally.
  • Using a cooperative model, we will aggregate resources to help small suppliers meet University insurance and legal criteria, and to make the payment system more straightforward.
  • Our desire to eat local produce will elevate professions related to food preparation, re-building professional skills from butchering to cooking to serving.  It will lead to re-investment in “scratch cooking” in the University Food Service setting.  
  • To drive the cultural shift toward local and away from value/ discount shopping, we envision creating a Miami Valley Foodshed brand—one connected to the many different values and reasons that it is important to eat local.  This brand will be consistent both in the University Food System, and in the broader community.  The presence of local food in institutional settings will then drive an understanding and consumer support for the brand in restaurant and retail settings.    
  • The return of viable small farming to the area will address broader health challenges related to food security.  Healthy food becomes more abundant.  Greater professionalism associated with food service work raises wages, and creates economic opportunity.  

Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?

Once an area known primarily for its notoriously stomach-churning fast food chili and donuts, the Miami Valley Foodshed is now known for its rich local food culture and cuisine.  This transformation is in part thanks to Miami University, the region’s largest employer and educational institution.  As the climate crisis loomed in the 2020s, the University astutely realized that re-focusing liberal arts education around something as critical as food was a future-looking and necessary approach.  The University reversed years of divestment in local sourcing with the help of new technologies that helped aggregate and source food for University operations from a patchwork of small growers.  They supported this change with curricular offerings for students from every background, from business to marketing, to biology to history.  Student-assisted efforts to design the infrastructure for the new economy led to novel approaches, and a heightened understanding of the importance of local food to building economies, sustainability, and resilience to climate disruptions to the global supply chain.  As a result, the Miami Valley Foodshed brand and technological infrastructure quickly gained popularity as a model and was soon duplicated by University communities across the nation and world.  

In the Miami Valley Foodshed, University demand for produce created a revolution in small-scale agriculture, processing, and cooking.  Moving away from corn and soy-based crops, and toward cutting-edge regenerative agriculture engaged a new generation of professional farmers.  Diverse in age and background, they used renewable and passive methods to extend the growing season, adapt to climate challenges,  re-build local soil quality and sequester carbon.  Many of these new farmers were graduates of the University, and brought their scientific training to an understanding of farm ecology.  Renewed appreciation for the value of biodiversity on farms led to a reduction in pesticide and herbicide use, and a further recovery of bird and pollinator populations (and a decline in the cancer rate).    Water systems vital to public health recovered, and indicator species such as freshwater mussels returned to the local watershed. 

With the renewed respect for the challenges of food cultivation, residents become serious about drastically reducing food waste, and ensuring that organic nutrients do not leave the local system.  Food waste reductions vastly lower the carbon footprint of the town, making it a national leader and sparking an academic renaissance merging the practical and theoretical studies to enhance local climate resilience.   In the end, it was the vision to put food in the middle that transformed the system. 

 

How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?

  • Website

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