Conference Experience Adds to Sustainable Food Systems Research

Undergraduate Michaela Murray reflects on her capstone experience for Mitchell Center project

In 2017, I had the opportunity to partake in solutions-oriented research relating to the global problem of food system sustainability. The project was a new Mitchell Center-funded endeavor facilitated by the UMaine Honors College’s Sustainable Food System Research Collaborative (SFSRC). The goal was to investigate the Farm to Institution (F2I) market in New England, a movement whereby small farmers sell their products to large institutions, such as hospitals and universities, in order to reduce environmental costs and support local economies.

Michaela Murray

Working with guidance from a community partner organization, Maine Farm to Institution (MEFTI), as well as with the support of an esteemed team of SFSRC faculty researchers, I spent nearly an entire year—alongside schoolwork, of course—exploring the obstacles and opportunities that have hindered and motivated participation in F2I across New England. You can read more about my research experience in the Mitchell Center story Food for Thought.

This work eventually led to my being able to attend the annual joint meeting of the Agriculture, Food, and Human Values Society and the Association for the Study of Food and Society in Madison, Wisconsin in mid-June. The conference was attended by over 500 individuals representing 41 states in the U.S. and 10 countries across the globe.

The overall theme was AgroEcoProspect: The Politics of Integrating Values, Food, and Farming. Presentations and discussions ranged from agroecology to food governance and justice, from alternative agriculture techniques to knowledge and activism. An experience unlike any I’ve ever had, I was able to stand beside UMaine faculty to present the important research we’ve done, and listen to dozens of talks about current efforts being made to address the sustainability crisis that our global food system is facing.

Each presentation session was followed by an in-depth question and answer discussion where presenters and viewers had the chance to dive into issues even more, ask hard questions, share ideas, and learn from one another. It was without a doubt the most collaborative experience I have ever had, and one that I will forever cherish as a profound educational and inspirational opportunity.

Being surrounded by hundreds of intelligent, charismatic and passionate individuals reignited the spark that pushed me to care about food systems in the first place. The conference affirmed my decision to dedicate my learning to food systems of all types and the exploration of creative solutions to the multitude of problems the industry is facing.

I had the opportunity to connect with people of all ages, ethnicities, and backgrounds who, perhaps without their knowing, have inspired me to keep pursuing change in the local, regional and global context. Change is hard, of course, but it can only be accomplished with the hard work, dedication and ingenuity of passionate individuals.

I would like to extend my sincerest gratitude to the Senator George J. Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions and the University of Maine Honors College for their continuous support and encouragement throughout this project, as well as their assistance in funding my travels to partake in this memorable conference experience. As an undergraduate student, I feel extremely grateful to have been afforded the chance to both participate in meaningful research and be able to network and collaborate with dozens of researchers who are doing just the same.