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2023 at FIC: A Recap

2023 was an exciting and busy year at Kalamazoo Valley's Food Innovation Center. 

2023 at FIC: A Recap

It was a year of growth!

2023 was a banner year at the Food Innovation Center, with major growth in food hub operations, rebuilding of key systems on the urban farm, vibrant community events, and launch of our new Sustainable Horticulture program. Though 2024 is already well underway - let’s look back on the exciting highlights.

LFPA grant launch

The leading story for 2023 is the availability of our USDA Local Food Purchase Assistance (LFPA) grant funding, which has allowed us to scale up the activity in the ValleyHUB food hub. We are one of eight statewide partners on Michigan’s LFPA project. We are working with local partners Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes and Sprout BC. Together, we have already distributed at least $500,000 of produce from Southwest Michigan farmers to households that need it. The Valley Food Share Program run by Kalamazoo Valley Community College has been able to scale up thanks to the addition of foods funded through LFPA: in the 2023 fall semester, we distributed more food share boxes than in any previous entire year! 

ValleyHUB has also been able to provide food to send home with families participating in The Learning Kitchen, a nutrition and culinary education program for youth, run by our friends in Kalamazoo Valley’s Community Culinary & Nutrition department.

There are so many great stories about the impact that LFPA has already had on our community and so much more work to do - keep an eye here for quarterly updates.

FoodShare Hristina Clair

School food service sales growth

Another area growing by leaps and bounds is our sales to food service partners. Last year, in January 2023, we had just four active food service partners: a hospital and three early care and education (ECE) facilities. Now, in February 2024, we currently have 36 food service partners, including most of the school districts in Southwest Michigan that are operated by Chartwells. Between July and December 2023, those food service partners purchased over $215,000 of healthy, locally produced foods that went straight onto the cafeteria trays of kids all over the region.

Amaranth 1

First ValleyHUB Annual Meeting and Food safety training exploration

With help from a USDA Local Food Promotion Program (LFPP) grant, we have been able to facilitate networking among food systems partners throughout Michigan. In January, we hosted the first ValleyHUB Annual Meeting of Partners to bring together farmers and customers, along with many of our state agencies and other technical assistance providers. In June, we brought together a room full of on-farm food safety practitioners – folks involved with inspections and audits and technical assistance for farms – for an exchange of ideas that focused on building and creating a culture of food safety from the farm to the table. It was a rich conversation that surfaced many opportunities for future training programs and needs for additional support. Both of these meetings will be repeated in 2024.

farm food safety meeting

Sustainable Horticulture program launch

Meanwhile, on the academic side at Kalamazoo Valley Community College, our Sustainable Horticulture program launched! Over 30 individual students are benefiting from scholarship funding provided by the USDA grant that started the program, and a full schedule of courses was offered in the fall semester. We expect our first graduates in April 2024.

Life Enrichment and Community Courses 

Community classes at the Food Innovation Center have been just as vibrant as ever. With the launch of the Sustainable Horticulture program, we offered new options around Ecofriendly Home Landscaping, home pest management, and “Plant Parenting 101.” We also expanded on our theme of “sustainable self-sufficiency” to include a new class on Visible Mending. 

Our Kalamazoo Roots program, offered in partnership with the City of Kalamazoo and funded by the Foundation for Excellence, concluded its third and final year with over 200 participants growing home container gardens and participating in online learning and community-building. 

EcoLandscape

To conclude a multi-year Garden Education and Outreach project, which intended to build opportunities and culture around gardening in urban spaces in Kalamazoo, we hosted a pilot, 5-week Garden Leadership Training. Modeled after similar programs offered by Growing Hope in Ypsilanti and Keep Growing Detroit, this program brought together leaders from community, church, school, and ECE-based gardens to develop skills around volunteer management, fundraising, seasonal planning, and of course, growing food. The program was well-received and we anticipate offering it again in Fall 2024.

The apiary at the Food Innovation Center had a strong year. One of our 2022 colonies made it through the winter, and we installed four new colonies in April. With the management of Kalamazoo Bee Club volunteers and participants in Kalamazoo Valley’s Beekeeping courses, we were able to split colonies and maintain up to 9 hives at peak season. We harvested over 200 pounds of honey - and we made a video about it!

Much of the honey was shared with youth participants of the Merze Tate Explorers program, who joined us for a two-week program in November. The girls learned about beekeeping and honey production, and then bottled honey and made beeswax lip balm to share as part of a service project. It was a joyful, sticky, exciting collaboration!

installing bee package

Gardens and grounds at FIC

The grounds of the Food Innovation Center are always evolving, and this year was no exception. We had four especially exciting projects:

We installed a set of seven interpretive signs throughout the site! A labor of love for several years, these signs allow visitors to explore the grounds and gardens at any time, and learn more about gardening, farming and community food systems. Please come visit - and be sure to use the QR codes to access bonus content and give us your feedback.

The African Diaspora Heritage Seed garden towered between our two hoophouses, showcasing African heritage varieties of grains and seeds: amaranth, millet, corn, sorghum, sesame - and some eggplants too. The seeds were grown in preparation for the 2024 Kalamazoo Foodways Symposium, which will focus on African Heritage foodways. Several of our community garden partners grew the seeds as well.

Hoophouse with Sign

 A new Pocket Prairie is the first in a multi-year project to convert some of the lawn space into native prairie plants. The area, about 200 square feet in a hot, dry spot just south of the greenhouse, demonstrates how deep-rooted and low-maintenance native plants can be, while hosting dozens of pollinator friends.

On the other end of the spectrum of sustainable horticulture methods, in our glass greenhouse, the aquaponics system was entirely rebuilt in 2023 into a more visitor-friendly, accessible format. We also switched from tilapia to koi and goldfish, and created a gravel propagation bed for easier experimentation with fun tropical plants.

aquaponics

This is the year we tell you about it!

In 2023, our team was focused on managing all this growth, and in 2024, we are committed to sharing more news! Look for more regular blog posts, follow us on social media, and scroll all the way down to sign up for the ValleyHUB newsletter - which will release its first issue in March. 

ValleyHUB is truly a partnership-based endeavor. We are grateful to all the partners who have worked with us, supported us, let us support them, and shared the joy with us. We look forward to more progress in the year ahead.


February 27, 2024
By: Rachel Bair, Director for Sustainable Food Systems
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