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Proposal is on the table for MU Food Studies Institute

By James Steinbauer, University Editor

Miami University's Innovation and Interdisciplinary Fund is examining a proposal for a $250,000 seed grant to fund a new Food Studies Institute.

The program was first proposed Dec. 1, 2014 and was selected as one of the top 16 proposals among a pool of 56 applicants. The final proposal was sent in on Jan. 31 and the university is currently in the process of making a decision, which will be announced before spring break.

Professors Alfredo Huerta and Peggy Schaffer of the departments of Biology and American Studies, respectively, co-wrote the proposal with support from a cohort of faculty members in the departments of International Studies, Anthropology, Women's Gender Studies, History, Geography, English, Kinesiology, the Institute for the Environment and Sustainability and the Myaamia Center.

Schaffer said that the idea of a Food Studies Institute arose from her work with this year's Altman Lecture Series on the Antrhopocene and the advent of the Global and Intercultural Studies program.

"I started thinking about how we could wed these two ideas and it just came to me. Food," Schaffer said. "Food is central to student life on campus. It's a really interesting entrée to get students and faculty thinking about their relationship to their community, their economic and social systems and to their planet and earth systems."

If awarded, the grant will be broken-down into a three-year planning and development process that would begin the fall of 2015.

The first year of the seed grant would focus on initiating a campus wide conversation on food sustainability by creating a public lecture series. Speakers could include Michael Pollan, author of "The Omnivore's Dilemma," and Jennifer 8. Lee, author of "The Fortune Cookie Chronicles."

The second year would be devoted to institutionalizing the program by holding a faculty seminar and creating summer and winter workshops in both local and global communities. Professor Charles Stevens of the International Studies department is reconstituting a summer workshop on sustainable food systems and food culture in the Commonwealth of Dominica, in the Caribbean.

His hopes are to provide students with the skills to solve real world problems, one of the largest being the present industrialized food production system.

"It is extraordinarily polluting," Stevens said. "And while it's economically efficient, it's not very good at getting food to people who need it, despite the fact that we have more than enough for everyone on the planet. There's something inefficient about that."

By the third year, a foundation for funding security would be in place. Possible external funding sources include grants from the Environmental Protection Agency, the United States Department of Agriculture and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, among others. Huerta and Schaffer also hope to find a corporate sponsor or alumni donor who would be interested in putting their name on a project like this.

Another feature of the third year, the creation of a multi-acre experiential garden, has commanded the interest of several departments on Miami's campus.

"When they have their experiential garden in place it is expected that they will be doing some composting," Yvette Kline, director of Sustainability and Energy Conservation at Miami, said. "We are very interested in using some of our organic food scraps in that composting operation.

The greatest amount of leftover organics on Miami's campus come from the food preparation process at the Demske Culinary Support Center, which sends about five tons of food scraps to landfills each week. Another two tons is collected from various dining facilities on campus every other week and is sent 130 miles north, to Delaware, Ohio, for composting.

Ideally, the food grown at the garden would then be sold to the culinary center for sale at dining facilities on campus.

The experiential garden would be completely organic and non-GMO, with an emphasis on native permaculture and vegetables. Another area on campus, the Myaamia Center, is interested in the garden for this reason.

The Myaamia center's work in language and culture revitalization has an ecological component, and embedded within that component is cultural food.

"I think it's worth noting that many cultures define themselves by their foods," Daryl Baldwin, director of the Myaamia Center and member of the Myaamia Tribe of Oklahoma, said. "We've long been interested in what the seasonal and traditional diet of our ancestors was."

Many of those traditional foods are native plant species, so there is an interaction between the Myaamia culture and the land - what Baldwin calls an ecological perspective.

In the spirit of sustainability and efficiency, Huerta and Schaffer hope to minimize the cost of the garden by sharing machinery and tools with the already present Ecological Research Center.

"There's a lot of talent and strength already here at the university," Shaffer said. "It has the land and it has the people, so those resources are already available."

Huerta said that one of the benefits Miami offers a food studies program focused on sustainable agriculture is that unlike major land grant universities, Miami does not receive significant funding from corporations in the seed industry.

"The process of ecological agriculture, in the modern sense, is at least 30 years old, but it's banging it's head up against monoliths like Monsanto and ConAgra," Stevens said. "We are substantially outgunned."

A study by Food & Water Watch revealed that some of the top donors of land-grant universities like the University of Illinois and the University of Arkansas included corporate agriculture behemoths Monsanto, ConAgra and Tyson.

"A lot of these universities have their hands tied politically," Huerta said. "But we can say that we want to be a sustainable and green university and truly put our money where our mouth is."

For Huerta, it boils down to what he calls "the big question."

"What does the future of food look like? We don't normally think of this, but there may come a time when we run out of phosphorus, we run out of water and we run out of soil. So what do we do? This kind of institute can help answer that question before it's too late."