Universities, farmers, and culinary professionals bring more of the harvest into the market to eliminate hunger and on farm food loss.
Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.
The identity of this region as an agricultural and academic center has been cultivated over generations. Situated along the banks of the Connecticut River with the most fertile land in the Northeast, the Pioneer Valley(PV) region has a history rooted in agriculture with 28% of farms in Massachusetts residing in this region. UMass Amherst’s role as a land grant institution since 1863 has provided education to generations of farmers, and continues to provide support, opportunity, resources and research to farmers and the community to this day. The larger PV is also home to a range of colleges and universities that act as launchpads for transformation through the marriage of knowledge and the opportunity for practical application. Large institutions are also a market opportunity for local farms and year after year increase support for the local economy. UMass’s presence, serving 50,000 meals per day and adopting local as a core value, has influenced the economy and consumer behavior. As a self operating, multi million dollar operation, the dining program has been a unique catalyst in the community and a model in the region and among its peer institutions throughout the country. The PV is home to a diverse and dynamic local food system and has been moving out of isolation to be integrated into local cross sector public health initiatives. UMass has been working with local partners, sharing what its learning and now is convening a broader group of stakeholders to take the conversation beyond increasing local purchasing to find new ways to truly strengthen the system. We have formed a collaborative among food systems organizations, anchor institutions, farmers, private businesses and regional governance. The PV region provides a frontier of changing food landscape in the community and the community continues to work toward building shared goals and strategic plans for developing a more sustainable, regionally interconnected and interdependent 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.
Rolling hills, meadows, farmland and waterways make up this river valley. The longest river in New England, the Connecticut River flows from the Canadian-U.S. border through Vermont, Massachusetts(MA), New Hampshire and Connecticut. Along its banks exists the most fertile soil and productive agricultural land in the Northeast. Known as the Pioneer Valley(PV), this region consists of Franklin, Hampshire and Hampden County in Western MA, USA. The economy was historically based on Connecticut shade tobacco and milling, evolved to specialized manufacturing in the 19th/20th century and to investing in local food production and the local economy in the past 25+ years. Since the 1980s, 30,000+ acres of farmland have been protected and 2,045 farms now operate here. A limited growing season and long cold winter require farms to sell to a variety of markets and invest in specialty crop production such as asparagus, potatoes or squash. The 4 seasons demand farmers to be innovative, capitalizing on technology to extend the growing season, i.e. climate controlled storage facilities for winter crops. Home to 692,000 people, the counties vary in character, demographics and approaches to development, yet simultaneously share a regional identity. The PV’s demographics include various racial and ethnic backgrounds: 75% White, 17% Hispanic, 6.6% Black and 2.7% Asian, representing the myriad cultures and food traditions. As a result, farms increasingly grow culturally varied crops to meet the population’s needs. Franklin County is predominantly rural focusing on building capacity, investing in infrastructure and supporting the future of farming. Hampshire County has the largest student population in Western MA with 23% of the population aged 18-24. A unique setting for innovation, institutions here bolster the region’s economy and employ many people. Hampden County is home to gateway cities Springfield and Holyoke, both with a history of economic fluctuation from manufacturing centers to factories closing to re-investment in local economic growth. Food insecurity is also a priority in the PV. According to the Food Bank of Western MA, 1 in 8 people are food insecure. A 2018 study of MA colleges showed that 35-44% of students are impacted. The poverty rate in Franklin, Hampden and Hampshire County is 10.1, 17.2 and 13.8% and food insecurity is 11.5, 10.2 and 14.3% respectively. Hampden county in particular faces extremes of poverty and affluence side by side impacting health outcomes. The relationship between food and public health are examined here beyond the impact of diet, addressing food access, transportation, housing, community development, etc. simultaneously to build healthier communities. Increasing success of the local food system is one piece of this bigger puzzle.
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Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.
The Pioneer Valley (PV) evolved from reliance on regional production to dependence on a global system for resources. With a mix of rural/urban settings and various cultures and needs, the PV struggles to maintain a regional identity and shared goals. Our region’s challenges relate to all six interconnected themes (environment, diets, economics, culture, technology, policy). Now and in the future, these correspond to the region’s need for cross-sector coordination to embed the food system in a shared vision for the future. The PV has been making steady strides in strengthening the regional food system, but to advance further, there is need for a formal mechanism of coordinated measurement, tracking, and communication to connect all sectors of the whole system. Lack of technology and infrastructure is a barrier to solving issues like waste and food insecurity. Food waste occurs across the supply chain, but a major challenge is waste on farms. Using a Vermont study and USDA data, it is estimated that 66 million lbs. of MA produce is lost on farms each year. Waste on farms is linked to environmental, economic and cultural challenges. Unharvested produce wastes resources used for growing: water, nutrients, land, labor, etc. With no system to calculate this loss, the amount of resources used inefficiently is unknown. Lack of markets for lower tier produce lead to economic loss for farms and the region. While food is wasted, members of our community are going hungry. Many people, including college students, are food insecure, yet there is no required metric for assessing campus food insecurity. The existing models to address hunger are not accessible to all and can create more barriers than solutions. Finally, there is no regional network to collect, process, and distribute food to college students. These all result from the need for coordinated problem solving supported by emerging technologies. Surplus food is available, but effective use requires connecting all sectors of the food system to create systematized coordinated responses to these opportunities. At the root of these barriers is culture and industry that prioritizes aesthetically perfect produce, contributing to waste on farms. Lack of standard education on the carbon impacts of food production and distribution separates people from their food. Lack of understanding of the scale and impact of food insecurity leaves it in shadows obscured and neglected. Shared knowledge of the whole food system is needed to prioritize collective solutions including policies to solve coexisting issues, and directed funding for green infrastructure, food systems education, and access to healthy local food. Surrounded by farmland, the majority of food consumed here is imported and some communities lack access to food. Only through building a collective vision that addresses the mismatches between resources the area provides and the resources being used will we be able to address these challenges as a region.
Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.
Our vision for a collaborative, innovative, regenerative regional food system in the Pioneer Valley is the next level response to challenges our region faces. One constant in the PV is the region’s relationship to agriculture. Despite economic fluctuation, agriculture has served as a backbone of this region and it continues to fuel ongoing conversations and cultivation of a holistic regional food system as an avenue to success into the future. To address our primary challenge of disconnection between sectors and lack of regional vision, our goal is to develop a regional food system identity and shared narrative that builds connectivity and drives action toward a food culture focused on regenerative cycles. Training and education for all food systems professionals will build a cohesive network that advocates for and builds systems from within the same set of priorities: regenerative growing practices, local economies, equitable food access, and coordinated systems of distribution. This builds strength across the region through strategic infrastructure, shared knowledge, and a spirit of innovation that benefits all people across sectors and settings.
The challenges of food insecurity and food waste are addressed through integrating measurement, tracking, research and data collection, training, and operations protocol on campuses and farms across the region. A food pantry network and food security monitoring integrated into enrollment and employment processes builds resilience for our most vulnerable. Campus procurement policies that include second tier produce, rapid response systems, and distribution channels cultivated between farms and institutions to allow for more efficient use of resources used to grow food will open up new markets. New ways of integrating existing and emerging technology to connect more of the parts of the food system and transform them to low carbon alternatives as a core mandate of this work will impact the whole region.
Through backbone support by learning institutions, and broader community input, the vision can take root and flourish. Addressing the climate crisis has moved to center stage in the PV. Institutions, municipalities, and industry recognize opportunity and obligation to rise to the occasion. Connecting action to research, green infrastructure, networked systems, professional development, and market/consumer transformation, new ways of growing, purchasing, eating, and disposing of food will arrive to take us to the next level of strengthening our food system and prepare us to meet new challenges ahead. Beginning with working with farmers to help them harvest and sell all of their produce, and working with culinary professionals to develop recipes for value-added products that can be used in dining halls and campus wide food pantries are some of the steps that will create a food system that is sustainable and responsive to the needs of all stakeholders.
Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?
Stella Porth and her dad Gideon of Atlas Farm at the 2019 Farm to Table Dinner celebrating local partnerships.
The University of Massachusetts award winning dining program has been a pioneer, leading the way in transforming college dining programs into epicenters of community, culture, healthy eating, and sustainable operations. In 2020, after 10 years of partnering with regional growers and engaging multiple stakeholders to make steady progress to increase local purchasing for the country’s largest self-operating college dining program, we find ourselves facilitating a community dialogue about the larger issue of how we can do more to mitigate climate change and create a more resilient food system.
In 2050, the University of Massachusetts Regenerative Food Innovation Institute (RFII) celebrates 25 years of gathering food system professionals, farmers and academics in the region, and the Pioneer Valley community to imagine, co-create, and test cross-sector solutions for emerging food challenges and land stewardship. In 30 years, the RFII has implemented a Regenerative Food Network with a circular low carbon system that feeds people and the planet. Our playbook for creating regional hubs that share food related learning, research, workforce development, and food production/consumption, has spread our vision for interconnected, carbon neutral, and inclusive regional food systems throughout the world as a climate action strategy.
The Pioneer Valley Regenerative Food Network uses solar and electric energy to power farms, driverless vehicles, and distribution hubs. Our farmers utilize regenerative organic practices for optimal soil health and nutritional impact. Campus dining programs, K-12 school districts, and other area anchor institutions are primary markets and processing centers that take advantage of all viable produce that provides healthy, regenerative, local ingredients for the dining programs, as well as providing convenient, healthy options for distribution as needed to support issues of access. All remaining food waste is diverted to create energy and compost that support future growing and food production.
These practices, principles, and community development structures are now standard to the curriculum that trains current and successive generations of professionals in farming, food service, urban and rural planning, and other disciplines that interface with the food system.
The RFII continues to contribute energy, evidence, infrastructure, and innovations that support strong resilient food systems through:
*Cross-sector/cross industry gatherings for problem solving,Institutionally recognized and supported campus food pantry network that has led to the eradication of food insecurity on Pioneer Valley College and University campuses. Food security is part of student enrollment and employee orientation process. Stigma around hunger has dissolved because of education and openness of resources.
*Research has proven that campus dining programs serving healthy, fresh, local food positively impacts student success.
*Model campus procurement policies and rapid response systems to reduce on farm food loss and maximize utilization of resources going into growing food that has strengthened the local economy, farms, and healthful community supported campus dining programs.
*Region wide education and professional development curriculum that standardizes cross sector knowledge, dialogue, and collaborative problem solving for current and future food system professionals. By standardizing a culture of collaboration and collective resilience through education and practical training the RFII has led the way for current and future food systems workers to introduce and implement multilevel policy changes that prioritize regenerative growing practices, local economies, equitable food access, and coordinated systems of distribution.
*Farmers, food service professionals, and food security efforts are supported by research and long range data collection.
*Best practices in integrating green energy and regenerative practices within infrastructure, distribution systems, and soil health.
* Data informed forecasting and best practice sharing.
*Regenerative Food Center providing physical space to accommodates aggregation, simple processing, preserving, storage, and freezing, serving as an area Food Hub and commissary kitchen for the largest self operating university dining service in the country. The Regenerative Food Center also utilizes solar power and accommodates a fleet of electric trucks that serve the Whole Harvest distribution system.
*Community involved place-making events that feed, inform, engage, and activate people to invest in regenerative solutions to a healthy food system for all people. This includes an annual Food in the Pioneer Valley Festival that is held at a different campus each year.
*Market testing and product development for regenerative food and consumer behavior.
*Because of the unique attributes of the agricultural history combined with robust food system activism, and collaboration among multiple academic settings, this is the best place for this transformative work to be undertaken, especially with a budding commitment to collaborate already in place to tackle on farm food waste, increase food processing on campuses, and coordinate distribution of value added products to a network of campus food pantries. Through the partnership with a diverse set of academic institutions, the Whole Harvest Vision can invest in workforce development up and down the food system pipeline. Community Colleges are direct connections to educate and train our rural and urban food systems workforces across the spectrum of culinary, hospitality, social services, and agriculture.
“Thirty one years ago we began a journey together,” said Warren Leigh, retired director of the Holyoke Community College Culinary Arts Program when asked what were you looking for when the Whole Harvest Project and the Regenerative Food Innovation Institute started and did you get what you wanted.
Leigh goes on to say, “All of the campuses in the area had been working on increasing local food purchasing in their own way, and taking it year by year. Food had become a center-piece for campuses in attracting students and influencing future consumers. At the same time, planet health moved into crisis mode and sustainable got an upgrade to regenerative. We had reached a point that were approaching capacity when it came to increasing local purchasing if we kept doing the same things in an isolated way, so we got together to try something new and to take advantage of all the expertise in the area, including the expertise that we produce through our collective programs to come up with a shared vision and a solution oriented plan that would be nimble enough to adapt as needed to new information and the changing climate.”
“We exceeded our original plan! We stumbled along at first because we were all still used to managing and advocating for our own agendas, but once we hit our stride, launched the community wide campaign that added voice and education to a broader audience, the project was transformed into a movement of We are All in this Together. It continues to amaze me!” Leigh says with tears in his eyes.
“In 2020, I wanted to end hunger on campuses in a way that respected people’s dignity and preferences, which at the time was a growing concern.” said Charity O’Connor, University of Massachusetts Amherst, Director of Student Support and Basic Needs, who at the time of the project launch had just come on as the first Basic Needs Coordinator for the Dean of Students. “I remember how proud and excited I felt 20 years ago, in 2030 when we were able to report through research and long term data tracking that no students were hungry on campus and there were now policies and systems to ensure this is a standard on all campuses in the region.”
“I don’t really remember the start of the project, said Stella Porth, UMass Alumni and owner, operator of Atlas Farm that she took over from her dad Gideon, an original member of the Whole Harvest Project and lifelong partner in the Regenerative Food Innovation Institute, “except the Farm to Table Dinner at UMass that I went to that featured produce from our farm and others we knew. It tasted so good! Since then we have transformed along with the project! It secured the future of our farm, established data tracking systems and developed and tested technologies that has made it easier for us to efficiently grow using regenerative practices, and we are a training site for new farms. I do remember when we were fully transitioned to electric vehicles and then driverless electric vehicles. That was really cool! Today I am at the annual Food in the Pioneer Valley Festival with my teenagers. They get to see firsthand all the work we are doing together. The festival is one of the many ways we stay connected to the vision and collect new ideas from the community to study, implement, and systematize. We are so lucky!”
“The Whole Harvest Project and the RFII is why I will finish up my associate degree at Greenfield Community College (GCC) and go on to my four year degree at UMass,” said Miranda Martinez, GCC class of 2050. “My favorite courses was one co-taught by instructors from the GCC Farming and Food Systems program, the Culinary Arts Degree program at HCC, and a Food Science Professor at UMass. The class helped me understand how food impacts and supports many interrelated systems. We also collected on farm data at local farms and food waste data from the UMass Dining commissary kitchen that processes value added products that are used in multiple settings throughout the community. We also learned to make our own food. This class gave me a framework and very practical experience of the whole food system and how it supports human and planetary health in the PV. Food continues to be such a critical issue of my generation and I want to help find solutions!”