What’s on your plate?

Wow, it’s been a crazy few weeks!

Over the past three weeks I turned in the first draft of my thesis (the thesis that inspired this blog!), hosted a lovely friend who came down to visit for a week, and then attended the NOFA-VT conference in Burlington, VT.  It’s been hectic, but I’m looking forward to getting back to a regular posting schedule- I’ve missed things around here!

On Friday I’ll be posting a recap of an excellent workshop I attended with the purchasing director of a major catering company about effecting meaningful change through institutional partnerships.  In the meantime, here’s an awesome video from the University of Vermont Continuing Ed on food systems- it’s an informative and entertaining overview of food issues in the US today.  Got someone who’s interested in food issues but doesn’t know where to start?  This is for them!

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Regional Food Hubs

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Another cool project by students at the WPI Center for Sustainable Food Systems focused on building a regional food hub in Southern New Hampshire.  I had heard of food hubs in the past, but didn’t give them too much thought (this was especially obtuse of me considering that I worked with the people behind the Intevale Food Hub last summer).  Turns out, food hubs are a really cool way for small-scale diversified farmers to build their markets.

One of the problems facing small-scale farmers is that it can often be difficult for them to find markets outside of CSAs or farmers markets, which constrains them to a relatively small consumer base.  The small scale of their operations also prevents them from accessing institutional markets, like nursing homes or schools.  These larger markets need a larger-scale food supply that can ensure their ability to feed large numbers of consumers.  These markets tend to be more stable, however, as they are reliable buyers over long periods of time.

Food hubs act as a middleman to bridge that gap:  they aggregate products from several small farms in one area and then sell those products to larger markets.  The aggregate nature of food hubs enables them to provide the consistency that these larger markets needs, and can also act as a low-commitment CSA for beginning farmers.  Instead of having to provide large amounts of food for weekly CSA pickups, a number of beginning farmers can contribute smaller amounts of their produce to a food hub CSA.

Food hubs are a way for small farmers to gain broader access to markets, and this particular project focused on building a physical structure for this farmer.  It was a wonderful application of engineering knowledge towards food system problems!  I had no idea that food hubs served this purpose, but what a great way to increase farmers’ access to markets!

WPI sustainability projects

I saw a couple of great presentations from Worcester Polytechnic students at the NOFA-Mass conference- they were from WPI’s Center for Sustainable Food Systems, and their projects revolved around using practical engineering knowledge to solve social problems.  It seems to me to be an excellent way to apply learned knowledge while benefiting the local community- and the students definitely didn’t disappoint!  The groups had a number of different ideas, but one that especially stuck out to me was a project that focused on the whys and hows of youth eating habits.

Specifically, this group was looking at why high school students eat unhealthy food, and applied techniques borrowed from anti-smoking campaigns to help them combat this.  Chief among these techniques is peer-led introspection, a process by which one member of the student group leads the others in keeping and subsequently discussion ‘food journals.’

There are two phases to the journaling process:  the first week, students write down everything they eat and discuss it.  The second week, the students are asked to make note of the food advertisements around them.  The peer leaders again lead the students in discussion about the advertisements, this time looking at overlaps between the food journals and the advertisement journals.

This is an excellent exercise in mindful eating, for lack of a better term- why do we eat the things we eat?  What influences us to make those choices?  I’ve pointed out earlier that knowledge is power- the more you know, the less likely you are to fall prey to misleading advertising or unhealthy foods.  By directly confronting both their eating habits and their food environments, the students are facing that interconnectedness head on.  Hopefully this kind of exercise will help them become engaged, savvy eaters- this is the kind of activity that’s beneficial regardless of age.