Strengthening Sustainable Food Systems at the University of Michigan (2017)

Client Organization: 
University of Michigan Sustainable Food Program (UMSFP)
Project Location : 
Ann Arbor, Michigan
Summary of Project Idea: 

The University of Michigan Sustainable Food Program (UMSFP) has become an extensive student led network with a remarkable capacity to address significant challenges in our campus and community food systems. One of the challenges that UMSFP members have identified and begun to address is that a significant student population at the University of Michigan experiences barriers to food access.[1] UMSFP member groups such as Student Food Co and Maize and Blue Cupboard have been working for the past few years to establish ways to increase food access for students, and have established a nonprofit market stand that sells fresh produce at-cost twice weekly on central campus, as well as a free monthly student food pantry in the Michigan Union.

UMSFP was started by a SNRE Master’s Project Team in 2012 to address challenges such as this by connecting students working on various aspects of sustainable food. The mission of UMSFP is to collaboratively create a more sustainable food system on campus, building student capacity through this process to become as leaders and change agents for a vibrant planet. UMSFP centers education and the community in the work that it does, and works with partners including the Office of Campus Sustainability, the Graham Sustainability Institute, Michigan Dining, Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum, Edible Avalon and Avalon Housing, Food Gatherers, The Agrarian Adventure, Chiwara Permaculture, Focus: Hope, the Washtenaw Food Hub, Slow Food Huron Valley, the Local Food Summit, Program in the Environment, the School of Public Health, SNRE, and the School of Engineering. As this network grows and increases in capacity, it also increases in complexity.  The 2016-2017 SNRE Master’s Project Team will analyze these many moving parts and partnerships in light of the mission and needs of UMSFP, the Campus Farm and other community members with a firm grounding in equity and environmental justice, which UMSFP understands as essential to the definition of sustainable food.

The same Master’s Project Team that formed UMSFP in 2012 also began the Campus Farm at Matthaei Botanical Gardens, which has grown from a small pilot plot to an acre of land under production using organic methods. Today UMSFP consists of the Campus Farm, an elected student leadership team, a program manager, an advisory board and more than a dozen student groups, including Friends of the Campus Farm (volunteers at the farm), Student Food Co, Maize & Blue Cupboard, Food Recovery Network (recovers unused food from dining halls and delivers it to Food Gatherers), Food Industry Student Association (connects students with job networks and hands-on projects in the food industry, such as aquaponics), Cultivating Community (empowers and educates University of Michigan students to become leaders in the area of community food systems), Feel Good (sells grilled cheese sandwiches to raise money to alleviate hunger), Oxfam (focuses on local and global issues of food access by educating ourselves, volunteering, and spreading awareness), Real Food Initiative (aims to bring healthier, more sustainable, and fair food to dining services on campus), the Permaculture Design Team, Student Advocates for Nutrition, UMBees and the Medical Campus Garden.

The “Strengthening Sustainable Food Systems at the University of Michigan” Master’s Project Team will be tasked with leveraging and strengthening existing these resources and networks to get more fresh and sustainable food into the hands of more students and community members who need it, at the same time as offering educational opportunities for students, strengthening community relationships, supporting the mission of the University and building a viable business model that is able to sustain and grow current efforts. Until this past growing season, the majority of food produced at the Campus Farm had been donated to Food Gatherers and taken home by student volunteers. More recently Campus Farm produce has also been made accessible to the community through sales at UM Farmers’ Markets, Argus Farm Stop, Student Food Co, Michigan Dining’s Fields Café, and through a small CSA begun in the summer of 2015 for staff and student interns at Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum. Campus Farm produce has also been sold to student cooperative houses and local restaurants and businesses such as The Brinery, The Grange, Silvio’s Organic Pizzeria, El Harissa, Hut K Chaats and Juicy Kitchen. The 2016-2017 Master’s Project Team will assess each of these distribution avenues in light of the missions of UMSFP and the Campus Farm, and partner with the UMSFP Leadership Team, the UMSFP Manager, Campus Farm student managers and MBGNA staff to determine which of these outlets to focus on, and how these outlets fit into the networks and needs of UMSFP, UM students and the local community.

Even with all of these allies and efforts in place, sustained time and effort is required to more fully understand the needs and goals of these various groups on campus working on sustainable food, and to determine the factors that limit their ability to improve sustainable food access, information and activities for students and the community. The goal of this SNRE Master’s Project is to combine existing research with further efforts to more fully assess the needs of our local community and the resources currently in place to meet them (such as resource and needs assessments, surveys, focus groups, and interviews). This project team will use this research, systems analysis and modeling to make recommendations for improved sustainable food systems design for UMSFP and the Campus Farm that are firmly grounded in community, equity, education and justice.

Past master's project links: 

[1] Nicole Kasper et al have researched student food security at the University of Michigan through surveys, indicator tools and focus groups. Their findings were shared in a presentation titled “Predictors and outcomes of student food insecurity" at the 142nd APHA Annual Meeting and Exposition in November 2014.

SNRE Program Areas: 
Environmental Policy and Planning
Behavior, Education, and Communication
Environmental Justice
Sustainable Systems
Role for each program area: 
  • Expertise in Environmental Policy and Planning will assist in understanding institutional policy at the University of Michigan and in Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County as the project team researches long term solutions and plans that aim to collaboratively meet the food access needs of UM students and the local community as well as the goals and missions of UMSFP student groups, the Campus Farm and the University of Michigan.
  • The perspective of Behavior, Education and Communication students will be key in supporting the project team in understanding the behaviors that shape the food system at the University of Michigan. Students involved with this project will explore what motivates student, staff, faculty and community actions around food access, health and sustainability, and what communication strategies and educational components can be put in place to successfully shape a more inclusive sustainable food system at UM.
  • A deep commitment to Environmental Justice training will be essential to the project team’s ability to design a campus-based sustainable food system rooted in equity and justice. The team will require an in-depth understanding of the inequities in our current food system in order to put solutions in place that not only do not reproduce them, but also play a role in addressing the harmful impacts this system has.
  • Sustainable Systems students can lend the team knowledge in best practices for sustainable food systems design. Application of systems thinking, systems dynamics and modeling will assist the team in determining the best strategies for this project to ensure equitable access to sustainable food for students and the local community. Transportation, storage, time and labor are key components of this project, and have been limiting factors in terms of food distribution options for the Campus Farm and UMSFP member groups. Sustainable Systems students can analyze these elements and use their training to model solutions.

Team size: 4-6 students

Professional Career Development Benefits: 

Stakeholder engagement with university administration, student organizations and local farms and food organizations will be key to the success of this project, and are valuable skills to offer on the job market. In addition, working closely with UMSFP and Campus Farm staff as well as community partners such as the Washtenaw Food Hub, students will increase their knowledge of sustainable food systems, the inner workings of a small organic campus farm, and how a university program operates and integrates as a part of a local food system. Systems thinking and short and long-term planning and recommendations are significant components of this project, equipping students with consulting and organizational skills that can be easily translated to other professional settings. Students will also have opportunities to write and secure grants in support of these projects, with the potential for long-term impact on the campus community beyond the duration of their project. Students may also choose to research and visit peer institutions, local farms and food hubs and incubators to glean insights from other successful distribution strategies in addition to getting hands on farm-to-table experience with the Campus Farm and UMSFP. Previous Master’s Teams have presented their findings at national gatherings including the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) Conference, the Permaculture Your Campus Conference and the Sustainable Agriculture Education Association Conference, and the 2016-2017 team will also be supported and encouraged in doing so.

Funding Sources: 

Potential will be available from UMSFP beginning in the 2016-2017 academic year. The amount is not yet clear, yet likely in the range of $1000-$6000. Previous Campus Farm Master’s Project teams have been successful in securing funds through the Planet Blue Student Innovation Fund (up to $40,000), small grants such as the Center for the New American Dream’s Get2gether Neighborhood Challenge ($1000-$3000), and crowd funding.

Identify expected products/deliverables: 

The “Strengthening Sustainable Food Systems at the University of Michigan” Master’s Team will be expected to deliver the following by April, 2017:

  • Written assessment of current UMSFP distribution channels in light of the missions of UMSFP and the Campus Farm
  • Written analysis and modeling of the UMSFP network including members, campus partners and community stakeholders
  • Written recommendations for increasing student access to sustainable and affordable food
  • Food distribution plan and model for UMSFP and the Campus Farm
  • Recommendations for educational programming and communications associated with various sustainable food distribution strategies to connect student and community consumers with their food system

All materials delivered to UMSFP will be reviewed by the UMSFP Manager, UMSFP Leadership Team, UMSFP Member Groups, the UMSFP Advisory Board and Campus Farm staff and used to inform the continued development of a sustainable food system at the University of Michigan, including engaged student learning, strong student leadership, and an improved Campus Farm.

Contact full name: 
Emily Canosa
Job title: 
UM Sustainable Food Program Manager
Ann Arbor
State or Country: 
SNRE Faculty Advisor: 
Ray De Young
Contact Phone: 
Contact e-mail: 
Contact information: 
Staff member of a potential client organization
Our Organization has been an SNRE master's project client in a previous year
Master Students Involved in Project: 
  • Christine Rickard, MS Environmental Justice 
Project Status: 
In Progress