Honors College Collaborative Encourages Undergrad Research on Food System

Honors College StudentsHonors College seniors Audrey Cross and Ashley Thibeault are tracking every single food purchase made by UMaine Dining Services over a period of two months in the 2012-13 academic year. If this sounds meticulous, it’s because it is. The task involves combing through thousands of line items, noting every acquisition of every bit of dining hall foodstuffs.

Soon, they’ll crunch the numbers to find the percentage of food purchased from local, humane, fair, and ecologically sound producers. They reported their progress in a poster presented at the Maine EPSCoR State Conference in December. It’s all part of a knowledge-to-action strategy.

“We want to see if we can get the university to commit to a goal of 20 percent ‘real food’ by 2020,” said Cross, a senior, whose work is based on the Real Food Challenge – a national student movement to convince universities it is worthwhile to purchase food products from producers who run sustainable and ethical operations.. That includes fair labor practice and humane treatment of livestock. “Where our food comes from means something. We want students to get in the habit of thinking that way, so after they graduate they can’t go back to the ambiguous tomato.”

This ambitious research and analysis were made possible by grants from a new initiative of UMaine’s Honors College. The Sustainable Food Systems Research Collaborative (SFSRC) brings together students, faculty and community partners to enable an interdisciplinary approach to solving problems of food production, food distribution and hunger. But SFSRC faculty see an even broader role for the collaborative as a center for innovative solutions to multiple aspects of food systems: the social, the cultural, the economic as well as physical boundaries and personal challenges. Students of any major are welcomed and encouraged, faculty say.

Honors College seniors Cross, Thibeault and Danielle Walczak are the first fellows of the program, which received seed funding from the Senator George J. Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions. The fellowships gave each a chance to expand their food-systems-related senior theses, granting them access to a network of faculty and community partners such as farmers and food service professionals. The grant also gave them time to dedicate themselves exclusively to the work for a full month following the spring semester.

The idea, say faculty affiliates, is to build a rich collaborative that includes undergraduate students at all levels, university researchers and a network of invested community partners. New lines of inquiry will build on previous students’ work, making it possible to identify common factors and guiding principles that underlie wide-ranging studies in a variety of disciplines.

“Working together the group leverages the multiple disciplines of the participants to generate a broad view of the food system landscape before individual members take on specific projects,” said François G. Amar, Dean of the Honors College. “The energy and enthusiasm of the first fellows has been incredible. In addition to wanting to focus on their own research problem or thesis topic, they were very open to reading and discussing articles and meeting with stakeholders who had broader concerns. Undergraduates are not yet fully integrated into a research discipline and so can often be very open to hybrid approaches to solving problems.”

Amar and colleagues say SFSRC was born of the realization that students like Cross, Thibeault and Walczak were duplicating efforts.

“My colleagues and I realized that a number of students were working on research related to the food system, but were doing so mostly in isolation,” said Melissa Ladenheim, Adjunct Assistant Professor in Honors and Interim Coordinator of Advancement. “The support from the Mitchell Center allowed us to create a nerve center where we can coordinate these efforts. The collaborative fosters continuity in relationships and research that encourages students to engage in meaningful projects with real implications for our community partners.”

For Danielle Walczak that meant spending a lot of time on farms last year rather than cloistered in a library. Walczak is researching small farms in the state. She met with several young farmers to assess their food production, business acumen and community connections.

Her goal: to understand their lives, which mainly involve small, diversified livestock and vegetable production, and what their contributions mean to the state of Maine. She discovered that, despite Maine’s aging population, young farmers who own small farms are on the increase. A journalism major, Walczak laid out her discoveries in a piece of literary journalism, outlining the struggles facing these new farmers such as land acquisition, availability of markets, climate change and capital.

“There are successes, but I’m interested in looking behind the statistics and getting the real story: what are the struggles facing theses farmers; what makes them tick? SFSRC has allowed me to be really thoughtful about my process and how I set up my project. I was able to discuss ideas and engage in a place-based approach towards our food system.”

Amar sees the year-old collaborative growing far beyond its current incarnation. And though building a large database of original research will require the work of multiple students over multiple years, the collaborative is gaining attention. The SFSRC team gave a presentation on its model at the National Collegiate Honors Council meeting in Denver in early November. The talk attracted interest from both faculty and students. There was another session at the 2014 Joint Conference of the Association for the Study of Food and Society & the Agriculture, Food, and Human Values Society at University of Vermont. Next up: a session on food systems at the 2015 Maine Sustainability and Water Conference in March.

SFSRC, says Amar, has potential implications beyond UMaine: “Tailoring community-based research to undergraduates is novel and, I think, may be transportable to other complex problems and other institutions.”