LARAMIE, Wyo. — Two years into a five-year, $5 million research project on community food systems, University of Wyoming assistant professor Christine Porter is more hopeful about the work than she was when she started.
Porter and a team of research partners are following five community groups developing local food systems with the goal of learning how to support such organizations while also figuring out how they work best.
Porter said after seeing the impact of $40 mini-grants — one piece of the project — or quantifying the harvest produced in a typical Laramie garden, she's gained enthusiasm for the tangible results such work can have in a community.
"It matters even more than I thought, with even more immediate, measurable benefits," she said.
The project, called Food Dignity, is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture through the largest USDA grant UW has received.
Porter, who works in the Division of Kinesiology and Health, is collaborating with a team from Cornell University, where she earned a Ph.D. in community nutrition. Team members and community partners gathered in Laramie recently to discuss their work.
Porter said she wants to make sure universities are part of the community food system movement that's growing around the country. Community groups participating in the project receive $60,000 a year to expand their work, while the academic partners document. The academic community is uniquely positioned to disseminate information in a way each local group can't, she said.
"There's a need to learn from the work nationally and also to promote and share the ideas that they have, and that's one thing we can do as academics," Porter tells the Laramie Boomerang (http://bit.ly/11tQ1A6).
Feeding Laramie Valley is a local community partner in the project. Founder Gayle Woodsum said 20 percent of Albany County residents live in poverty, and 8,000 are food-insecure.
"We have our own challenges," she said.
But last year Feeding Laramie Valley tracked the harvests from eight local gardens and found they produced enough vegetables, on average, to feed a person his or her USDA-recommended 2.5 cups a day for a year. And that's with Laramie's 56-day growing season.
"They were seriously productive," Porter said.
Virginia Sutter, a Northern Arapaho who lives on the Wind River Indian Reservation, directs a nonprofit organization called Blue Mountain Associates, which is working to expand the sustainable food system on the reservation.
The group supports a farmer's market and has given grants to community members to start gardens.
Sutter said residents suffer from a high rate of diabetes and cardiovascular disease, but they have no shortage of space to develop.
"We have a lot of acres to work with, opening a brand new door for us to make a change in the lives of our people," she said.
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Sutter said gardens are popping up across the reservation, helping residents become more self-sufficient.
"Each year has brought us a lot more success than we could have imagined," she said.
East New York Farms in Brooklyn, N.Y., was founded in the 1990s to address several needs identified by the community, according to director Sarita Daftary. There weren't many green spaces or safe public spaces, residents suffered high rates of diabetes and obesity, they lacked access to healthy food, and young people couldn't find jobs.
However, the community did have a lot of vacant lots and residents who brought gardening experience from around the world.
"We wanted to develop those resources," Daftary said.
Today the farm supports a farmer's market where locals may sell surplus produce, it provides jobs and stipends through its youth program, and it's part of a network of dozens of community and backyard gardens.
"That has been a huge growth over the years and a huge success," she said.
Dig Deep Farms and Produce in Ashland and Cherryland, Calif., leases land from Alameda County in one of the most densely populated places in the San Francisco Bay area, according to general manager Hank Herrera.
The farm has about 250 subscribers to its community-supported agriculture program and employs 10 people.
Herrera said the farm creates jobs while also creating access to healthy food in a place with few supermarkets and a population in poorer health than surrounding areas.
"Producing and delivering fresh, local, healthy food is an important avenue for health," he said.
Jemila Sequeira, who coordinates the Whole Foods Project in Ithaca, N.Y., said even a seemingly affluent community has residents who struggle to feed themselves. And the people who need the most help are left out of the food system.
"If there's one person struggling to feed themselves healthy food, to me that's a concern," she said.
Porter said a sustainable food system is a necessity, as the industrial system is draining aquifers and using up soil and oil.
"What food system can also feed our grandchildren and our great-grandchildren and our great-great-grandchildren, and also all of us today?" she said. "We must develop sustainable alternatives."