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Tennessee’s Promise for the Future: The Revitalization of a Southern Appalachian Food System

With investments in education and regenerative agriculture comes economic growth and vitality to support the region’s healthy food system.

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Lead Applicant Organization Name

The University of Tennessee

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.

The core team of 2050 food system visionaries are invested faculty, staff, and administrators at the University of Tennessee (UT); future collaborators will be UT students and student organizations, the Tennessee Board of Regents, Pellissippi State Community College, State of Tennessee departments including: Department of Agriculture, Department of Economic and Community Development, Department of Health, Department of Corrections, as well as Tennessee political representatives and the legislature, the Agrarian Trust and existing Tennessee Agrarian Commons, local education, public health, and social services agencies.

Website of Legally Registered Entity

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

  • 1-3 years

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


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?

11 Appalachian counties: Anderson, Blount, Campbell, Grainger, Jefferson, Knox, Loudon, Morgan, Roane, Sevier, and Union

What country is your selected Place located in?

United States of America

Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

Knoxville is our home. We live, work and play here, and we want to see its people, communities, and food system thrive. At the heart of this region is Knoxville, home to the state's flagship and land grant institution, the University of Tennessee (UT). The visioning team is comprised of administrators, staff, and faculty with expertise in public health, nutrition, plant sciences, extension, agriculture, health policy, Appalachian culture, economic development, and technology. The opportunity to work collaboratively and strategically to enable a promising 2050 future is rewarding and an honor.

Our commitment to the region is not the only reason we mobilized to support a thriving food system. We think higher education is key to transforming East Tennessee, where the socioeconomic and health-related disparities associated with Appalachia are well documented. Importantly, the state leads the country in pioneering a state-wide free-college program called Tennessee Promise, with UT offering similar tuition support for low-income students through the Tri-Star Scholarship Program. These programs will transform access to educational opportunities for low-income and first-generation college students across Tennessee. Yet, this access does not automatically translate to academic success. Low-income and first-generation college students have unique needs, often with limited family financial support for other necessities beyond tuition, leading to food insecurity for over 35% and housing insecurity for nearly 40% of these students; their drop-out rates are nearly four times as high as higher-income, second-generation students. As states across the US begin offering similar free-tuition programs, UT has the opportunity, leadership and content expertise to serve as a model institution - solving such problems and catalyzing great opportunities to engage and train students from all economic backgrounds to become active participants in transforming our food system.

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 Knoxville foodshed is an 11-county region in East Tennessee. The region is located within the heart of southern Appalachia; yet it cannot be reduced to southern or Appalachian culture. Its complex histories are interwoven with being a growing metropolitan hub and home to major research entities, including Oak Ridge National Lab. The University of Tennessee and Pellissippi State Community College are based here. The terrain includes the Tennessee Valley and is flanked by the Cumberland Plateau to the west and the Great Smoky Mountains in the southeastern counties.

The region is comprised of over 1 million people and 8 million acres of land. Of this area, 26% is used for agricultural production. The median household income of the region is $45,290 compared to $52,375 in Tennessee and $61,937 in the US, while 27% of households have an income under $24,999. According to the Appalachian Regional Commission, Morgan County is economically distressed and both Campbell and Union are economically at risk. While some regions of foodshed appear relatively economically stable, data can mask the disparities that affect our region. As seen in Figure 1, much of the population in the region are low-income (blue and orange) and many of these low-income families and individuals have little access to grocery stores (orange). In addition, there are many census tracts in the region that have low access to vehicles (purple).

Looking at a nutritional indicator for the foodshed, the percent of overweight/obese adults and children is 29% and 36.1% respectively. Grainger County reports 50% of children are overweight/obese, which signals a growing health and nutritional crisis to come. Concomitantly, food insecurity rates range from 10.7 to 14.2% in Blount and Campbell with child food insecurity rates ranging from 17.3% to 23% in the region.

The food culture is one that could be compared to a “traditional” Southern US diet-heavy on frying, fats, and processed food and influenced by convenience foods. There are approximately 8,500 farmers, 52% of whom farm less than 50 acres. About 70 farms in the foodshed are oriented toward producing for the local food market, and there are 22 farmers’ markets and 16 community-supported agriculture programs active in the region.

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


What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?


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

Over the past century, Knoxville’s regional food system has been transformed.  Originally, the majority of foodstuffs came from within the Tennessee Valley; now the majority of our food travels vast distances before arriving at our plates. Typically, these foods are highly processed, of low nutritive value, and calorically dense. The true costs of these unhealthy, cheap foods can only be estimated by looking at the costs associated with our weak local food economy, steep healthcare costs, a growing legacy of obesity and chronic disease, and decrease in human capital. The destabilization of the local food economy has numerous effects related to the environment, our culture (once heralded for self-sufficiency) and upended zoning policies that allow small farms to become part of suburban and rural subdivisions and discourage farming.

Productive agricultural land is scarce in the foodshed and development is infringing upon more agricultural land every year. The remaining farmland is unaffordable to new farmers due to the growth of urban and retiree homes. Another challenge is the hilly topography and poor red-clay soils, which make traditional tillage farming techniques damaging. If people have interest in learning to farm regeneratively, there are few programs that offer successful, practical agroecological techniques. Existing local food farmers have limited market outlets and institutions have resisted stipulating local food purchasing goals. And finally, the majority of citizens have little connection with agriculture and few opportunities to be learn about ‘protective foods.’

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

Challenges related to climate, energy, and loss of protective foods compel us to look anew at our historic foodshed to supply nutritious food for all using agroecological practices to deliver food to plates efficiently, while providing a living for future farmers of the region. We envision new technologies and policies that will revitalize our local foodshed, allowing small farmers to own affordable land and make a living wage. Our vision features new education models so that school-age children and adolescents are connected to their food again through gardening, culinary training, nutrition education, and agricultural studies. In conjunction with Tennessee’s free-college programs, regional community colleges and universities will provide agricultural training to improve technologies so appropriately-scaled technologies and regenerative farming will be abundant. We visualize a food system with agroecological practices fitted for place and where foundations and local governments purchase the best remaining agricultural lands in the foodshed and place them into agrarian commons for designated agricultural use. This will facilitate trained regenerative farmer producing health foods from these lands.  Further, we foresee a robust demand for local protective foods, whereby institutions, including schools, universities, hospitals, detention facilities and prisons, and government agencies, will purchase and serve healthful foods from the local food system.

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.

The Knoxville foodshed will thrive economically, nutritionally, culturally, and environmentally. It will be an economically vibrant and sustainable community, providing access to healthy, nutritious food to people throughout the region. The foodshed will be a model to others, demonstrating how to interlink higher education opportunities to the growth and sustainability of its food systems. Local agricultural production of nutrient-dense protective foods will be both a viable means for people to sustain a quality livelihood and provide culturally acceptable foods that are embraced by a cross-section of the population. Public and private food assistance programs, such as food banks and pantries and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), will be used only as a stop-gap approach for emergencies.

Specifically, thousands of acres of farmland at risk of development will be preserved as farmland in perpetuity via agrarian commons. This land will be held in trust by farmers and community members to assure the food security for generations to come. Students will be trained in agroecological practices based upon native ecosystem dynamics. University agricultural research programs will respond to the increase in small farmers by investigating appropriately scaled technology to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of small farmers to make a profit while reducing energy use and improving the land. Farmers working and living on multiple agrarian commons throughout the foodshed will have other small farmers as neighbors sharing equipment, labor, and marketing to grow crops and reach markets. The informal economy of trade and sharing amongst agrarian neighbors will improve the economic resilience of these new farmers of the Appalachian foodshed. Institutions will serve up to 25% of food sourced through local foodshed farmers. The quality of these protective foods will return dividends of improved mental and physical health to those the institutions serve.

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

The University of Tennessee’s Food System Visioning Team developed its 2050 vision for a sustainable food system to expand on the Tri-star Scholarship Program, which provides free tuition and mandatory fees for income-eligible Tennessee residents. Free tuition is designed to increase the number of students who are able to attend the University of Tennessee (UT) and other institutions of higher learning, especially first generation, low-income rural students. Currently, these students are at a higher risk of food insecurity and hunger. We envision a vibrant regional food system and policies that supports people at every link of the food chain and ultimately ensuring that all students have access to healthy, affordable, local foods to eliminate this stressor. These new policies will also support economic prosperity for farmers, as they sell their harvests to UT and other colleges, governmental agencies, and institutions through farm-to-institution programs.

We foresee that UT will continue to provide degrees in agriculture, technology, food and nutrition sciences, and public health, and will develop new degree and certificate programs that focus on systems thinking about sustainability, public health, healthcare, the food system, and local and global environments, including developing solutions and technology to combat climate change. We see an education system that supports a robust food system by developing these academic programs, advancing research and technology to enhance growing practices, focusing on workforce development related to agroecological farming practices, science, and technology, and developing similar outreach programs to educate primary and secondary grade students, their families, and communities about the importance of locally grown, protective foods for their health and the environment. We believe that these integrated programs will improve the environment, provide economic development, expand ecological diversity, and transform the health of students, faculty, staff, and the community. Moreover, UT will work across the region to augment farm-to-institution programs to support small farms and growers with sustainable environmental, food safety and economic practices. In addition to the educational and outreach programs, this approach will provide outlets for local farmers to sell protective foods to UT, other colleges, and state institutions. Because these farms will use agroecological practices, the environment will be improved as farmers utilize diverse crops to simultaneously build soils, conserve and clean waters, save energy, and produce in abundance.

In 2050, UT will continue to play a key role in improving the diets across the region. UT has a long history of providing evidence-based educational programs in agricultural and family and consumer sciences to both urban and rural citizens through UT Extension. Looking forward, we envision that UT Extension, whose agents are part of the fabric of the region and are resources in each and every county, will continue its mission to improve the quality of life of Tennesseans by teaching farmers, families, and youth about the importance of a plant-based diet and how to grow, access, and prepare protective foods to improve health. Our nutrition and public health programs will continue to educate and train public health nutritionists and other public health professionals to help shift dietary norms from our current “southern food pattern,” characterized by calorically-dense, sugary beverages and high-fat foods, to plant-based diets, in which protective foods are prioritized. Subsequently, the health of the region will improve because plant-based diets decrease the risk of chronic diseases. We envision a food system that will allow the region’s citizens to have access to an abundance of affordable, healthful foods so that the current legacy of ill-health and limited physical activity is transformed back to the region’s traditional legacy of self-sufficiency and health.

Tennessee’s Tri-Star Scholarship program will prepare and produce a more highly educated public and aims to support greater opportunities for future employment and economic development of the region. To ensure a strong food system, we envision that these free tuition programs will be combined with programs that make farmland affordable and accessible to all students upon graduation. These farms will be supported through policies, such as farm-to-institutions, to produce foods that are high yield and profitable. As dietary norms shift to plant-based diets high in protective foods, the demand for local produce will make local farming more profitable.

Currently, young farmers seeking land find that land values near cities and markets are prohibitively high due to competing development uses. With the assistance of UT Extension agents, we foresee integrated efforts with the State and local governments to preserve the best farmland by working with foundations to purchase land from retiring farmers and place the land into agrarian commons. Agrarian commons closely resemble community land trusts, but are unique in that they work collectively to provide long-term affordable and equitable access to small- and mid-sized farms that produce protective foods for local markets and institutions. This unique land acquisition plan is a new response to the pressing problems facing young farmers. Our vision is to work with the Agrarian Trust to pilot Agrarian Commons. In turn, these efforts will attract trained graduates to work in food production, using environmentally sound techniques and technologies. With successful outcomes of this pilot, we would implement this premise on a larger scale to build a more vibrant community of local producers.

People in the 11-county region who make up the Knoxville foodshed are in the heart of southern Appalachia and have a proud history of self-sufficiency; reconnecting people in this area to their food can help them save on food costs, consume more healthful diets, improve food security, and create a more robust local food economy. Agrarian Commons will resonate with the region’s agrarian roots. UT has been a trusted partner in this area for 225 years and will continue to be so; it is part of the community framework and traditions of the region. The educational and outreach programs that we envision with a strong emphasis on agroecological practices and restorative farming will continue UT’s long tradition of improving the lives of Tennesseans.

New technology will enable our vision to become reality. UT will help support the development of new technology by continuing and expanding degree programs related to agricultural technology and food and nutrition science. Agricultural technology will be needed in the transition from current farming practices to regenerative farm practices; this technology needs to allow farmers to sponsor their own energy, build soils, and produce in abundance on the region’s small farms. Food system technologies will include ecological designs across the system; organic waste collection and composting, so that food and nutrients are no longer lost as waste in landfills; use of perennials in polyculture, microbial technology, ecologically-sound, appropriately scaled technologies that allow farmers to be successful through reducing costs and improving the environment; and production technologies.

Like the advancements in technologies, we foresee new institutional, local, state, and national policies to support the food system will be implemented as this vision takes shape. Just as the Tennessee Promise has served as a model for free tuition across the US, the University will serve as a model for institutional policies related to supporting a viable, sustainable food system. We envision that UT will develop and implement policies, such as those outlined in the US Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, related to procuring locally-sourced foods to ensure the financial stability of small farmers, as well as policies to ensure that low-income students have access to healthful foods, perhaps via meal plan scholarships or meal plan assistance programs. Further, we visualize the development of distance-learning academic and certificate programs to ensure that educational opportunities are accessible in rural and remote areas in Tennessee, across the US, and globally.

Using UT’s farm-to-institution procurement practices as a model, we envisage that University faculty and staff will work with other institutions, like local and state governmental agencies, prisons and county correctional facilities, hospitals, and other colleges and universities to develop local-food procurement policies to ensure that farm-to-institution programs are successful. We visualize local and state policies to support Agrarian Commons to assure equitable access to farmland and use of restorative farming practices to protect the environment and natural resources on farmlands. In addition, municipalities will develop new facilities to compost food wastes and set aside public spaces for community gardens. Current federal policies, such as the Farm Bill, will be revised, with tax-incentives for small local farms and subsidies for protective fruits and vegetables.

UT is already on the right path to producing transformative access to higher education. We expect to reap the benefits of these programs to transform Knoxville’s foodshed into a healthy and vibrant food system. We see 2050 as a year when we can celebrate the drastic reduction in hunger and food insecurity, having established a food system with its roots in sound food production and consumption.  

How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?

  • Email
  • Website
  • Meeting with Rockefeller representative


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