SIS Professors Win Funding for Sustainable Food Systems Research

SIS Professors Win Funding for Sustainable Food Systems Research

School of Integrative Studies professors Michael Gilmore and Andrew Wingfield won a $136,000 grant from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to develop undergraduate curriculum for Mason in the area of sustainable food systems.

The curriculum will form the core of a new concentration for students majoring in environmental and sustainability studies.

Since the grant’s award, Gilmore and Wingfield have crafted three core courses: Sustainable Food Systems, Food Systems and Policy, and Professional Pathways in Sustainable Food Systems. These courses, taken in combination with elective offerings from other Mason academic units, will satisfy requirements for a concentration in Sustainable Food and Agriculture, available through the 2016-17 university catalog.

The 18-month grant will also support a symposium on April 1, 2016 featuring regional experts active in the different parts of the food system.

Through the symposium, students will hear from and interact with farmers, food distributors, food policy experts and activists. Each panelist represents a different angle or perspective of the food landscape. The diverse panel also highlights the various entry points for students interested in careers in sustainable food systems.

The new courses and related special events respond to a growing interest between sustainability and food sources.

Wingfield said, “I follow the students. We are creating a program that responds to their interests.”

The new concentration and increased student interest reflect a growing concern with the sources of food, and the impact that industrial agriculture has on the environment, consumers, and food system workers. Mason, along with other educational institutions in Northern Virginia, are working with farmers and food suppliers to find new pathways to promote a sustainable, localized food system. Research and advocacy for sustainable food production helps to further this effort.

“We are at the cusp of creating a local, regionally-based food system. We want our students and graduates to participate and contribute,” Wingfield said.

The USDA-funded activities complement other sustainable food systems work led by Wingfield. In spring 2015, the 4-VA foundation awarded Mason $24,000 to support collaboration among Virginia state universities in the area of sustainable food systems.

As part of this project, Wingfield organized a Sustainable Food Systems Symposium at the Smithsonian-Mason School of Conservation in May, 2015. This event brought together teams of faculty members, campus operations personnel and dining coordinators from Mason, University of Virginia, Virginia Tech and James Madison University.  The meeting resulted in creation of the Virginia Sustainable Food Coalition (VSFC), whose mission is to harness the intellectual, human, and economic capital of colleges and universities to foster the emerging local food economy in Virginia.

VSFC teams are currently collaborating on action research projects to identify barriers that prevent large academic institutions from sourcing more of the food they serve from local producers and to better understand college students’ appetite for more sustainably raised food in their campus dining halls.  Longer term, the group hopes to catalyze development of a statewide food production, processing, and transport network to support a more robust, prosperous, and diversified local food economy.

Wingfield enjoys the collaboration and opportunity to try new ideas. He said, “Re-localizing our food system would reduce food-related carbon emissions, preserve working landscapes, and bring all kinds of benefits to communities in both rural and urban parts of our state. This is important work and I’m excited to have a hand in it.”