Listen to the UVA Today Radio Show report on this story by Matt Kelly:
January 21, 2011 — Over 10 long days this January term, 24 University of Virginia students tackled real-world challenges facing the Local Food Hub, a local non profit that aggregates crops produced by small, local farmers to make it feasible and convenient for customers like restaurants and institutional cafeterias to serve locally produced food.
The course, "History, Technology and Sustainable Agriculture," taught by Benjamin Cohen, an assistant professor in the Engineering School's Department of Science, Technology and Society, divided the students into groups of four. Each group was tasked with proposing solutions to one of several challenges, including reducing heating and cooling costs at the Food Hub's warehouse and greenhouse, cutting transportation costs, and advising partner farmers seeking to extend their growing seasons.
The last task was tackled by a group that put together an electronic pamphlet with resources on how to extend the growing season,including the use of easily made crop covers called "hoop houses."
On the last day of J-term, Jan. 14, the groups all presented their final projects at U.Va.'s Morven Farm and shared a potluck meal with local ingredients.
To reduce heating and cooling costs at the Food Hub's warehouse in Ivy, one group created a computer model of the warehouse to demonstrate how to divide the warehouse into climate control zones – either with floor-to-ceiling plastic sheeting that would divide the warehouse into four "rooms," or by closely wrapping actual shelves or palettes of food to greatly reduce the airspace that would need to be cooled.
One group produced an animated, narrated (and entertaining) video about options to cut the $4,000 annual propane heating bill for the greenhouse at the hub's Educational Farm in Scottsville. Several options focused heat on the plant roots – the most important part of the plant to keep from freezing – using inexpensive electric blankets or even a "solar hydronics" system similar to a residential in-floor radiant heat system, where heated water circulates through plastic tubing placed right below the plant beds. Simpler options included cutting down nearby trees to increase passive solar gain and installing better insulation.
"The final projects for the classes were truly above and beyond what we were expecting," Kate Collier, director of the Local Food Hub, said. "We will likely incorporate elements from all of the final projects in one way or another."
For instance, the season extension pamphlet will be made available on the hub's website and given to apprentices and partner producers.
"It's fascinating for us to get feedback and suggestions from the students in a directed and targeted way, not only because they are young and engaged, but also because of the multi-disciplinary nature of these classes," said Emily Manley, the hub's outreach and communications manager. Bringing together students from multiple disciplines avoids "group think" and produces "creative, innovative solutions."
Perhaps the most audacious proposal came from a group that looked at how to reduce the hub's transportation costs. The organization currently uses one delivery truck that traverses the Charlottesville region to make deliveries, many of which are small orders for local restaurants and markets. Those small orders, the group suggested, could be handled by enlisting volunteers to make deliveries in the course of their normal daily driving routes.
Such a "community-supported distribution" system would not only save costly delivery truck miles and overall carbon emissions, but also, and perhaps more importantly, would be an opportunity for community members to get involved in a tangible, easy way, in support of the hub.
"The community-supported distribution may not be something that, logistically or legally, we can move forward with as is," Collier said, "but we loved the idea of engaging the community and getting folks more involved and invested. We'll certainly keep it in mind as we move forward."
"I really applauded and encouraged the grandness and novelty of the idea," Cohen said. "As is the case with many genuinely innovative ideas, the community-supported distribution proposal would face some implementation hurdles. It would take another semester of students, if not more, to work on the legal, fuel, trust and organizational issues."
Fortunately, the U.Va. Food Collaborative is now in place as a focal point and clearinghouse to collect efforts around sustainable food issues, making it easier to build on earlier work and successes, Cohen noted. If Local Food Hub leaders decide they'd like to further investigate community-supported distribution, another food-related class may be able to pick up the ball this summer.
Cohen's J-term class was offered in tandem with "The Politics of Food." led by Paul Freedman, a politics professor in the College of Arts & Sciences. Building on their J-term experience, this summer the duo will team teach a course along with Manuel Lerdau, a professor of environmental sciences and biology, called "Interdisciplinary Food Systems Studies: History, Politics, and Ecology." The class is part of the inaugural year of the Morven Summer Institute, a multi-disciplinary program developed by the U.Va. Foundation and the Office of the Vice President for Research.
Partnering the class research and projects with the Local Food Hub required extra efforts, led by teaching assistant Laura Kolar, and her addition to the class was made possible, Cohen noted, by an Academic Community Engagement Course Assistant Award from the Office of University Community Partnerships.
Without that support, the class projects would have been speculative, rather than realistic and meaningful community-based research, Cohen said. "The students were excited to work on helping build sustainable food systems in tangible ways."
The results of their work may have far-reaching impact because the Local Food Hub is at the forefront of one of the biggest missing pieces in the local food movement – local distribution infrastructure. As first-year engineering student Davis Blalock explained, "people are calling daily from around the country to learn how to replicate what is being done here. If we can refine the efficiency here, we can really impact the whole local food movement."