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How One Rust Belt College is Transforming Its Local Food System

Under a robin’s egg June sky, John Smith pulls a clump of green onions from a raised bed. The roots make a soft wrenching sound as they release the ground. Smith stands, shakes soil from the roots, and bundles the onions with a rubber band. He and other students in Kalamazoo Valley Community College’s Crops Practicum class planted these onions in the spring. Now they’re harvesting them to go in free boxes of food for students at the college.

“We tilled the ground, we put down [weed fabric], we planted,” Smith remembers. “To see the plants that have grown from the work that you’ve done, there is a sense of pride.”

Smith, a 51-year-old who worked in an automotive condenser factory for almost 25 years, had never grown anything before taking classes at Kalamazoo Valley’s Food Innovation Center (FIC) in Kalamazoo, Michigan. As a culinary arts student, he’s required to have hands-on farming and food processing experiences at the FIC’s ValleyHUB Farm and Food Hub Social Enterprise. These unique elements of the culinary program reflect the college’s “belief in the transformative power of education to improve the health and well-being of our citizens and sustain our communities.”

Indeed, Smith’s life has been transformed. After two years of culinary school, his weight has dropped to just over 200 pounds, his cholesterol and blood pressure have gone down, and he’s been able to reduce his dependence on medications. He attributes all of this to increased physical activity in the kitchen and on the farm, and to his newfound knowledge of how to shop for and cook healthier food.

“People think it takes a lot of money to eat healthy. Now I know how to do it,” he says. “It’s not going to taste like something I ate in the past, like McDonald’s.”

Smith’s education at Kalamazoo Valley has also changed how he envisions the food truck he plans to open after graduating. “At first, when I thought about the food truck, it was more like comfort food,” he says. “Now I know how to prepare fruits and vegetables. That has really changed my thinking. Food is the oldest medicine.”

A belief in food as medicine falls from the lips of many at Kalamazoo Valley. This belief underlies the college’s ambitious mission to build a resilient regional food system in southwest Michigan, revitalize downtown Kalamazoo, develop the city’s workforce, and improve public health in a metropolitan area with one of the nation’s highest urban poverty rates.

The FIC and its ValleyHUB are just one element of this mission. They’re part of Kalamazoo Valley’s Bronson Healthy Living Campus, which opened in 2016 on a former Superfund site. The college worked with local Bronson Healthcare—who owned the land—and Integrated Services of Kalamazoo (a public mental health and substance abuse care provider) to secure brownfield mitigation funding and $18 million of public investment and philanthropic support for building three new facilities on the flood-prone, 14-acre site. This effort has succeeded through strong public-private partnerships and a shared food-centered approach to addressing public health problems.

Six years after opening, the Bronson Healthy Living Campus is a national model of a living laboratory for hands-on learning about food systems. Only a handful of other academic institutions including Sterling College, San Juan College, and the University of the District of Columbia offer educational experiences through a food hub.

At Kalamazoo Valley, the FIC alone has three active USDA grants and dozens of community programming partners. It hosts activities for more than 150 culinary arts students and runs noncredit classes for hundreds of community members. Meanwhile, the food hub aggregates produce from more than 30 farmers and supplies more than 40 regular customers.

Rachel Bair, director of sustainable food systems at the FIC, visualizes the campus’s integrated model as a triangle: “The three points of the triangle are health, economic opportunity, and community development. And in the middle of the triangle is food.”

To make this model come to life, Bair explains, the campus was designed “to completely break down all of the walls” between academic disciplines and between the college and the community. It was also designed to provide pathways between non-credit community education and degree programs, “which in higher ed is a different sort of barrier,” says Bair.

So, alongside community events and dozens of non-credit classes, the campus provides a home for associates degree and certificate programs in Culinary Arts & Sustainable Food Systems; Sustainable Brewing; and half-a-dozen health career paths. A new UDSA-funded program in Sustainable Systems for Horticulture, Agriculture, and Urban Landscapes is also currently being developed. These seemingly disparate programs are unified by their holistic approach to learning in the local community and landscape.

“We’re not only training the students in a real-world environment,” says Bair. “But we’re actually working in that environment to build the food and healthcare system that we want our students to work in.”

This approach benefits people of all ages in the community, she adds. ValleyHUB, for example, has enabled a neighboring hospital to double the amount of locally produced food it buys—up to about half of the food it serves. The hub also provides seasonal fruits and vegetables to the local YWCA. And a senior center across the street from the FIC uses a hoop house there to grow produce for meals on wheels.

In these ways and countless others, the campus “is about keeping the community in community college,” says Craig Jbara, vice president for strategic business and community development at Kalamazoo Valley.

Photo Courtesy of Kalamazoo Valley Community College.

A Demonstration Lab “For All of Us”

The Bronson Healthy Living Campus has helped turn a neglected area of Kalamazoo into a green oasis of activity. At the FIC, classes, community groups, volunteers, and staff stream in and out of the building all day long. Inside, people gather in a verdant lobby next to a grow room glowing with magenta lights over stacks of lettuce and microgreens. The food processing facility hums with staff cutting and packaging produce.

Outside, the building is surrounded by plants: stock tanks filled with herbs, ornamental gardens, native pollinator beds dotted with purple coneflower and milkweed, raised beds for vegetables, a children’s garden, and even a papaya tree. The FIC also includes an apiary, two passive solar hoop houses, and a 9,000-square-foot greenhouse crammed with tropical plants, potted tomatoes and cucumbers, and an aquaponic system teeming with tilapia.

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