U.S. colleges aim sustainable food efforts at hungry locals

UNITY, Maine Sat May 11, 2013 7:00am EDT

UNITY, Maine May 11 (Reuters) - Don't tell the red chicken squawking under Shayne Van Leer's arm that sustainable agriculture is usually associated with high-priced organic food.

The eight-week-old broiler is destined for a pot at a local soup kitchen, part of a student-led project at Maine's Unity College. It is just one example of agriculture students who are hoping to extend their zeal for an environmentally sound food supply beyond high-end grocery stores and farmers' markets to the kitchen tables of poorer Americans.

The 600-student Unity is a leader among schools championing the sustainable agricultural movement, which in general strives for a food supply that is community minded and affordable.

Unity has its new chicken-raising effort and a more established "Veggies for all" program, which raises thousands of pounds of organic vegetables annually for the nearby Volunteer Regional Food Pantry.

At Green Mountain State College in Poultney, Vermont, students have been participating in a popular "Grow A Row" program for several years, generating crops for local food banks, and classes have experimented with flash-freezing late harvest crops for food relief.

New efforts at Green Mountain include gleaning, or collecting leftover crops, at local farms for food donations and creating cooking classes in affordable local cuisine.

"After a university starts teaching about sustainability, it doesn't take long for students to bring up big questions about who has access to sustainably raised food, and who doesn't," said Mark Bomford, director of Yale University's Sustainable Food Project.

At the most basic level, colleges are increasingly willing to donate surplus food from student farms, usually destined for the dining hall, to local food pantries, he said.

"But students also want to address the bigger picture of hunger, as well as issues of equity and the skills required for food distribution," he said.

As a result, farm-friendly students are starting to seek internships with local nonprofits to learn about community food needs and issues.

"There are so many barriers to get healthy foods in people's food carts, and campus farms are opening students' eyes to that," he said.

Agricultural behemoths like the University of California, Davis, are in on the trend. The college recently began offering a major entitled "Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems," and farming students are working on a number of novel efforts for local hunger projects, including a new 1-1/2-acre farm project, solely dedicated to county food banks.

In the Ivy League, students at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, are taking seminars such as "Food Security and Agricultural Development" and writing grants on behalf of area food charities.

Emma Koefoed, an undergraduate studying agriculture at UC-Davis, teamed up with Zachary Dashner, also an ag major, to design Food Bank Farms, a project that proposes using fragments of unused farmland for local food efforts.

"It was quite a shocker to me when I learned that there were more than 20,000 hungry and food-insecure people in Yolo County," she said. "This is one of the most agriculturally abundant places in the U.S., and we ship food all over. Yet there are plenty of people here with little access to produce."

The Yolo County Coalition Against Hunger's Food Bank distributes nearly three million pounds of food to some 22,000 people each year. Yet in a county that is one of California's top tomato producers, only 700,000 pounds of that food bank food is fresh produce.

Budding farmers are expanding their definition of environmental responsibility to social responsibility as well.

In Maine, Unity college student Shayne Van Leer, who is planning to head this summer for a stint in the Peace Corps and focus on hunger initiatives in Nepal, said he plans to raise chickens to support himself and help the community.

"It's been pretty gratifying to think these chickens can make a difference right here in Maine," he said. (Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst)

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