How One Rust Belt College Is Transforming Its Local Food System | Civil Eats

How One Rust Belt College Is Transforming Its Local Food System

In Michigan, Kalamazoo Valley Community College has built a rare model aimed at connecting people through growing food, supporting local farmers, and educating a wide variety of community members. 

Kalamazoo Valley Community College

Photo Courtesy of Kalamazoo Valley Community College.

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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The idea of the FIC is “to be a demonstration lab,” says Jbara. The place exudes a sense of limitless possibilities for growing food in an urban setting.

On the FIC’s fringes, wetlands line a clear stream called Portage Creek. A half-mile downstream, the Culinary Allied Health building (CAH) rises dramatically above a pond flanked by the patio of a student-run restaurant. A 30-foot tall living wall ribboned with chartreuse, crimson, and purple coleus and sweet potato vines towers beside the building’s entrance. Inside, natural light streams into a gleaming small-scale brewery, café, and restaurant. Behind the kitchen’s swinging doors, students run a state-of-the-art professional cooking facility connected to classrooms, a community education kitchen, and a culinary theater.

Madeline Meadows—who recently graduated from the culinary program—is a lab assistant in the kitchen. She’s also an aspiring entrepreneur who found that feeding dogs raw food can improve their health. With the support of culinary faculty at Kalamazoo Valley, Meadows created a product that uses locally raised duck and vegetables, including the fat and broth from the bones.

“It worked,” says Meadows. Now, she’s focused on raising money to purchase equipment and hire help to get her business off the ground.

Like John Smith, Meadows was also inspired to grow her own food. “We started out with no gardens at our house. Now we have three. My daughter takes care of two of them, so she knows where her food comes from.”

At Kalamazoo Valley, Meadows has also learned how to cook seasonally. In her Fine Dining course, for example, she was tasked with creating a recipe for a bag of chopped local vegetables supplied by ValleyHub. The result was an autumn stew, and the recipe was one of many that get placed in the college’s free food boxes for students that week.

The food boxes, called Valley Food Share, are the core of a grant-funded program started in March 2019 to help alleviate hunger among students.

“We were lucky enough to have the Food Innovation Center just beginning and the food hub getting off the ground,” explains Coty Dunten, former director of student life at Kalamazoo Valley, who was involved in creating Valley Food Share. “So instead of providing students a backpack full of cans and boxes, we have a higher calling to feed students healthy food and teach them.”

Not long after Valley Food Share launched, 43-year-old returning student Kara Smith was jobless and going to class hungry. “I would go many days at school 7 a.m. to 7:30 p.m., and I didn’t have money for the cafeteria,” she remembers. When she signed up for the food boxes, she says, “it made the difference in me learning. When you’re hungry, your brain’s not giving 100 percent attention to what you’re learning and then applying it.”

Photo Courtesy of Kalamazoo Valley Community College.

In addition to local fruits, vegetables, and dairy products, the boxes also include plant seedlings in spring. Every week, between 50 and 100 boxes are given to students.

Now, as a farm lab assistant at the FIC, Kara Smith helps pack the food share boxes every Thursday. “It’s very fulfilling to [fill] the boxes so full I can just barely close them,” she says.

Learning to cook the produce that comes in the boxes better equips many students to take advantage of a Michigan program called Double Up Food Bucks. The program is one of many around the country that double federal SNAP benefits when they are used to buy produce.

In all of these ways, the program enhances food and health equity, benefits local farmers, and keeps food dollars in the community. “It’s not charity. Because it’s for all of us,” says Dunten.

She hopes the Valley Food Share model will be adopted elsewhere. “No one else is doing this. This could be easily translated,” she adds.

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Transforming the Food System by Forging Community

The Bronson Healthy Living Campus aims to create cultural change. This happens in direct ways such as training people like John Smith and Madeline Meadows to integrate health and ecological awareness in their food-related careers. But it also happens in slower ways.

Alongside degree and certificate programs, the campus offers non-credit community education classes and hosts a variety of popular programs such as beekeeping, mushroom cultivation, urban homesteading, foodways symposia, and free educational tours. These programs cultivate public consciousness about food systems and ecological living that create demand for related services. As Bair says of the landscaping industry, which the FIC offers non-credit courses for, “If we want to shift the industry, we have to shift the demand simultaneously.”

Bair and other campus leaders also recognize that the work they’re doing begins with young people. So the campus collaborates with dozens of community programming partners to bring in high school interns and summer camps, and it hosts a free culinary and nutrition education program called The Learning Kitchen.

The day after John Smith and his classmates harvested onions, a health careers summer camp group glimpses the bundles of onions in the food hub’s walk-in cooler as they tour the facility. They snack on carrots from a nearby farm that the hub was processing that day. And they plant microgreens in the grow room.

Photo Courtesy of Kalamazoo Valley Community College.

“Microgreens will not numb your mouth!” Beth Keith, a farm lab assistant, jokes to the middle-schoolers. Outside, they had just sampled spilanthes, otherwise known as “toothache plant,” which has a mild numbing effect when chewed. The middle-schoolers agreed that they liked the taste of the nasturtium flowers better than spilanthes.

Moments like these at the FIC show how interwoven food sharing and community building have become there. The staff regularly take breaks to browse on blackberries or other produce around the farm. A weekly staff meeting called “snack time” is centered around people sharing their unique approaches to food. And spontaneous food sharing is part of daily work, even in the classroom.

In the middle of a Crops Practicum class one morning, John Smith and his fellow students take a break to eat a stir fry cooked by their classmate, 56-year-old Eugenia Apawu. Before class, she realized she was running late, “So why not make some food to share?” Apawu thought. She rushes in carrying a tureen of rice and vegetables topped with sliced papaya grown in the FIC greenhouse.

Serendipitously, food systems program coordinator Hristina Petrovska brings in a mason jar of juneberry syrup she made the night before. She added lemon, rhubarb, and sugar to make the deep red liquid, she explains. She pours it into ceramic cups for the students and adds water to each cup while Crops Practicum instructor Lee Arbogast talks about growing juneberries, which Rachel Bair describes as tasting “like a blueberry, an almond and a cherry.”

While everyone sips juneberry lemonade and savors mouthfuls of stir fry, Apawu beams. “Thank you for eating!” she says.


Douglas Haynes is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Progressive, Orion, Longreads, and Virginia Quarterly Review. He is also the author of the narrative nonfiction book Every Day We Live Is the Future: Surviving in a City of Disasters, a cautionary tale of urban inequality and the climate crisis in Nicaragua. He teaches writing and environmental humanities at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh and lives in Madison, Wisconsin. Find him at: Read more >

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