The long view: Rachel Bair and food innovation

The innovation at Kalamazoo Valley Community College’s Food Innovation Center is not about correctly calculating the size of the next best freezer waffle. To understand what kind of learning is going on here you have to imagine how most of us get our food today.

Think about big farms, big processing plants, and products that travel long distances, sometimes all the way around the globe.

“What we’re trying to do, is innovate within the space of local and regional food systems,” says Rachel Bair, director of Sustainable and Innovative Food Systems at the Food Innovation Center. 

This innovation is the beginning of rebuilding Southwest Michigan’s local and regional food system, finding new ways to get food from farms to markets to consumers.
 
“A lot of the processing infrastructure from Southwest Michigan's local and regional food system is still standing, but there’s not as much as there used to be,” Bair says. Instead, we now have global supply chains that can get us any kind of food we want, any time we want. “What we know is that’s not good for the Southwest Michigan economy,” Bair says. “A lot of money is leaving our state because of those global, international supply chains. It's not necessarily good for our environment, either.”

That’s because of food miles. The farther a given food travels from where it’s grown to where it is ultimately purchased or consumed the less sustainable and the less environmentally sound that food is.  

“What we want to do here at the Food Innovation Center is help to rebuild a local and regional food system that will support our local economy and help local food businesses grow, so that there are more jobs and better-paying jobs, and so that we have food security here in our region, so that there is fresh food available for everyone, and we have control of our food supply.”

A very big goal. 

“This is a long game. We're playing a long game here,” Bair says.”I have no hesitation to talk in terms of five to ten year plans, because that's how long this is going to take.”

And the work is still in its early days. “There are so many needs and opportunities in our food system, and we're doing our best to respond as well as we can to build the networks and relationships that will help us all as a community move forward together,” Bair says.

The foundation underlying it all is sustainability.

“When students leave the program the goal is for them to have a firm understanding of sustainability. It's the basis of everything we're doing. It's about limiting our draw on natural resources and ecosystems while increasing quality of life. That’s how we see sustainability.”

Two sustainable growing systems being explored are an indoor garden with very high-tech, intensive food production and hydroponic technologies that use very little water and lighting that requires little energy. For traditional organic gardening, there raised beds on the property.

In a greenhouse, a number of new growing systems are going to be tested. HydroStackers are a vertically stacked system where the plants are planted in perlite, a volcanic rock that's very porous. It holds liquid and it provides structure for the roots. The plants get all the water and nutrients they need dripped through the roots. “They grow a lot of plants in a very small area and because of the way they're stacked. They're really efficient to harvest.”

In an aquaponics system, they will be raising tilapia in tanks. The waste from the fish will be converted into a fertilizer that in turn feeds lettuce plants. “The cash crop in that system is actually the lettuce, not the fish,” Bair says. “But it's a really interesting model of a closed loop system that mimics what really happens in nature.” 

A Dutch bucket system is also planned. “You basically plant tomatoes in these increasingly small buckets, and then trellis them up to the ceiling of the greenhouse so that they're growing on vines 10 feet high, and they're irrigated and given nutrients. We're getting ready to install that system. It's pretty complicated to build.”

For those who want to learn about farming, there currently are two practicum classes--one in the winter and one in the summer. In the winter class time is spent in the greenhouse and grow room. In the summer, students are in the field on the campus and in the greenhouse. They also spend a third to half of their time in farm placements. 

“We have partnerships with local farms and students who go in groups of three to eight. They went to the same farm week-to-week and worked there for two to three hours. It was a really great partnership with those farmers because they got some good, semi-trained, reliable help. And it was the students' favorite part of the class. They really loved the experience.”

There are further plans to turn what is now lawn into another place to grow plants and produce. Those plans are moving slowly by design because the land is a brownfield and while it has been capped to contain contaminants any plans to raise plants on the property must be carefully considered.  

“The whole site is covered with a barrier, and then a layer of clean fill, and then grass on top of that to keep it in place for now,” Bair says. “As we move forward, we will be looking at things we can plant in a way that's healthy for our community. ways that we can grow food, and pollinator crops, and fertility crops (plants grown to be used as compost for fertilizer) in this soil. We don't want to take any chances.”

Exploring innovations in the production piece of the food distribution system is an equal part of the work being done. The plan for the next five years or so is based on extensive market research to determine what is needed and what will be valuable to local businesses. “But that said, if five years from now, it turns out it's not viable,” Bair says, “the facility is built so that we can retool and do something else.”

Till then, the school is proceeding with light processing. “What we will be doing is buying fresh whole produce from local farms and lightly processing it. So we'll wash it, we'll peel it, and chop it. We can get as far as freezing and making some sauces that can be frozen. And then we'll take that fresh produce in this lightly processed form and sell it to our local institutions. So it goes to Bronson Hospital, our culinary school, and some of the other school systems, universities, and healthcare settings in the area. 

“The idea there is that those institutions have huge purchasing power, and if they can direct that into the local food system, that's a huge boon to local farmers and our economy in general.

“They're also looking to provide more healthy food. Either they have a customer demand for it, or in the case of Bronson Hospital, they have the moral imperative for it. It helps their bottom line too. They see fewer readmissions when folks are eating healthier food. But they are also under budget constraints and labor constraints, so receiving the food from us in the lightly processed form that they're used to getting it from their current distributor will make it easier for them to integrate local into their menu.”

What that means for farmers is the college will be working with growers who are successful at the direct market scale, who have a CSA, or have been selling at the farmers market and are looking to take the next step, into wholesale. 

“That's a really risky jump,” Bair says. “It's planting two acres of basil and trusting that someone's going to buy it. We can help them with that by being the person who's willing to buy it. We'll either find a customer for it fresh, or we'll figure out a way to process and preserve it so we can sell it throughout the winter and extend the season.”

Eventually, about 1,000 students are expected to work and study on the Healthy Living Campus, of which the Innovation Center is a part. The Food Innovation Center opened in January 2016 for students in the Culinary Arts and Sustainable Food Systems and Sustainable Brewing programs. Classes included Food Safety Essentials, an introduction to Sustainable Food Systems. Bair works with two teammates, Russell Davis, who is developing a Food Hub for the region, and grower Ben Bylsma, who oversees the experimental plantings.

The innovative ways of growing plants, processing and distributing them are “the basis, the living laboratory, for our educational programs,” Bair says. “We have these businesses. They function. They're open to the public essentially, but the students are active participants in running them, the primary participants in running them.”

Classes currently being offered are all part of the culinary program. Over the next three to four years, KVCC will be developing independent degree programs in both food production and food processing and distribution.

“We're trying to look out into the future as much as we can as we envision these programs in food production and food processing so that we're creating programs that are going to be relevant in ten years from now instead of five years ago,” Bair says. “And that's pretty hard to do, so we're really calling on industry to help inform that. We're looking for folks in industry to tell us what they think their needs are going to be in the future.”

The school has been in close conversation with various businesses as it decides the types of programs to offer. “We have a great conversation going with folks in the retail sector right now, for example, about what the needs are in produce management. There is a huge increase in consumer demand for local produce and that requires a complete revision of the supply chain for produce. There's not a lot of training for staff in those departments.”

The discussion has covered the kinds of skills retailers need for employees to have if they are going to increase the amount of local produce sold and what they might be able to pay an employee with those skills.  

“We have to determine if it is going to be worth someone going through a two-year program or does it need to be a six-month academy that's not for credit? We are looking at what kinds of training programs can we develop that give someone the skills that are going to benefit the industry and help land them in a good paying job because that's really what we want to do.”

Further, the hope is that, especially for the culinary students, that they take away the concept of a commitment to local sourcing, and a new understanding of where food comes from and what it takes to get it to their restaurant's delivery door. And that they use that knowledge as they plan their menus and plan their businesses, by including a garden out back where they grow their own herbs, for example. 

“We're training this generation of farm to table chefs,” Bair says, “and we also have a certified dietary manager program as part of the culinary school, so there's a real focus on training chefs for the institutional setting as well. They can take that farm to table mentality into the institutional setting and have even more impact because they're really making the food choice for the people in a facility like a long-term care facility.”

Just how unique is the Food Innovation Center? KVCC believes it is the only program of its kind in the nation. “For a community college to get into this kind of agriculture is pretty unique, and especially the combination of the culinary school with this kind of programming, and then on top of that, the partnership with Bronson Hospital is a whole other layer of uniqueness. It's incredibly exciting.”

Developing a program that could prove to be a national model is something that Bair has experienced before. She came to KVCC from the Fair Food Network’s Double Up Food Bucks program that allows those who spend their SNAP Bridge Card dollars at the Farmers Market to receive an equal amount in food bucks. “I started that job in 2010 when it was a pilot in Detroit and I grew it to a statewide program. It was starting to be franchised nationally when I left that position in 2015 to come here.”

She also was coming home. Bair grew up in the Kalamazoo area, attended KAMSC and graduated from Portage Northern. Her family did not farm, but her parents always had a garden in the back yard. 

Sustainability is something she grew up with, too. Her grandfather, Joe Chadderdon, was recognized with a Rachel Carson Award in 1983 for his work improving the quality of the wastewater treatment plant. (Chadderdon also is known as the author of the History of The Kalamazoo Vegetable Parchment Company and the City of Parchment.) 

Her family has always been conscious of the need for sustainability. “So I just have a strong sense of environmentalism and sustainability and the importance of our role as stewards of this planet.”

Nobody knows for sure what the future of transportation systems or the political system will be-- two reasons local food systems need to be rebuilt. “That kind of thinking is inherent in rebuilding local food systems. You do it so that  your own community and region is resilient if something happens to our transportation systems as we know it, or if something happens to our political systems as we know them.

“There are so many things that could happen, but maybe they won't," Bair says. “But the good thing about rebuilding local food systems is that in working through sustainability in general--if you go back to that definition of reducing the draw on the ecosystem while improving the quality of life--improving quality of life is part of it. So even if the disaster doesn't happen, you're still better off.”

Kathy Jennings is the managing editor of Southwest Michigan’s Second Wave. She is a freelance writer and editor.
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