Mason hosts sustainable food systems symposium

(Photo courtesy if Roger Leblanc)

Mason’s Sustainable Food Systems Symposium on Friday, April 1, brought together students, faculty and nearly a dozen professionals to discuss emerging food systems. The event included an opening keynote speaker, a series of panelists, small group discussions and a networking lunch.

According to the program’s statement of purpose, the event was designed to give students the opportunity to network and “engage with panelists in pursuit of opportunities for internships.”

Michael Gilmore served as the principal investigator on the USDA grant that helped fund the symposium. The co-principal investigator was Professor Andrew Wingfield, associate professor for New Century College. Danielle Wyman Castallano from the Office of Sustainability and Emily Bowman-Lipton, an undergraduate student and intern with the Office of Sustainability, assisted with the planning of this event, with funding provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The symposium’s keynote speaker, Tanya Denckla Cobb, director of the University of Virginia’s Institute for Environmental Negotiation, spoke regarding the community-building effects of local food systems. According to Cobb, grassroots food systems, such as community gardens, have the ability to heal neighborhoods.

Through local food systems, “we will be achieving the definition of communal food security, which is about justice,” Cobb said, adding that she hoped her words would draw students “into the world of the food movement where a world of possibility awaits you.”

The first panel presentation was on the topic of sustainable food production. This panel included opening statements from professionals involved in the development of sustainable farms, food access programs or food safety.

Jason Von Kundra, who works in Marion, Va., studies issues of health and poverty. In his work at Sprouting Hope Farms, Kundra “saw food at the crutch of a lot of these issues.” Kundra now works to make food accessible to low income families through the Sprouting Hope Community Garden volunteer program. The program currently involves 24 families and produces nearly three tons of food per year.

The second panel, “Sustainable Food Distribution,” included both USDA employees and food systems developers.

Jen Hawse, regional market manager for Relay Foods in Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, spoke on the importance of developing regional food accessibility and buying local. She works with more than 200 producers to provide Relay Foods with products. Relay Foods is an online regional food hub with pick-up locations or home-delivery options. In addition to working with local farmers to provide fair wages, Hawse emphasized Relay Foods’ efforts to reduce food waste.

“We source what we need, we don’t source to make it abundant for the consumer,” Hawse said.

“Sustainable Food Consumption,” the symposium’s third panel, discussed farm-to-school programs and food accessibility issues. Natalie Talis, policy associate for the National Farm to School Network, focused on the importance of early nutrition education.

“It is about enticing people to feel empowered to make their own healthy food choices,” Talis said.

Talis also works on policy and advocacy that promotes local food.

“You want to create the policy environment that is best for them,” Talis said.

The symposium concluded with open group discussions that provided students with the opportunity to discuss food sustainability with the panelists and to specifically address how Mason can better promote sustainability on and off campus. Many of the groups discussed the possibility of creating more elective courses at Mason as well as improving the promotion of existing sustainability initiatives.

Emily Novak, resident advisor for the Sustainable Living Living Learning Community, was excited to see so many food-centered professionals gathered in one place. Although food is mentioned is sustainability classes, courses do not spend much time discussed regional food issues, she said. Novak was happy that Wingfield “noted there was a need for this kind of event.”

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