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Event Report: Urban Food Systems Symposium

FIC Director Rachel Bair attended a national conference of urban food systems professionals and researchers in Columbus, Ohio, and came back with a harvest of new ideas. 

Event Report: Urban Food Systems Symposium

On June 11-13, 2024, Kalamazoo Valley’s Director for Sustainable Food Systems, Rachel Bair, attended the Urban Food System Symposium in Columbus, Ohio. This gathering of researchers, students, Extension educators, and urban farmers and other food systems professionals is hosted by The Ohio State University and Kansas State University every two years, as a venue for sharing knowledge and strategies for supporting sustainable urban food systems. The meeting was attended by 233 people from 26 states and 4 countries. Here is a 1-minute photo recap of the Symposium from the organizers. Rachel is excited to share her impressions in this blog post.

This was my first time attending the Urban Food Systems Symposium, which has happened every other year since 2016. I chose to attend this event in order to learn more about best practices for urban agriculture and urban food systems education that we could apply here at Kalamazoo Valley, and in order to prepare to launch our new Applied Research Program here at the Food Innovation Center. I made so many amazing connections and learned about innovative, inclusive and imaginative projects happening all over the country, and shared the ValleyHUB story with new colleagues from around the world. Here is a recap of my time.

Defining urban food systems

For the purposes of this conference, urban agriculture seemed to be defined in three intersecting ways. It is agriculture that is happening in proximity to population centers, it is organized in a way that emphasizes diversity, equity, justice, and sovereignty; and it makes use of various technologies to produce high volumes of food per acre.

The conference also encompassed broader food systems work - discussing distribution channels; access to land, technical assistance and education; and the local, state and federal policies that support or hinder thriving urban food systems. Every session and discussion also centered on the climate crisis.

This was an incredibly interdisciplinary conference, with scholars discussing food systems from every angle: public health, soil science, climate science, agronomy, business, horticulture, sociology, and more. It aligned well with how we approach food systems work in Southwest Michigan through ValleyHUB: from every direction, all at once.


Plenary Sessions

In talks throughout the first and third days of the event, we heard from leaders who are setting examples and guiding urban food systems work on a national level.

Dr. Dewayne Goldmon, the Senior Advisor for Racial Equity to the Secretary of Agriculture at USDA, discussed the 66 recommendations of the USDA Equity Commission and the agency’s work to counter its own discriminatory historical practices. “Equity is about resource allocation,” Dr. Goldmon said; he is pushing USDA’s programs to measure their success in terms of actual outputs, not just outreach effort.

Qiana Mickey, the Executive Director of the Mayor’s Office of Urban Agriculture in New York Cityshared the lessons and successes of the office’s first year. She is coordinating a network of 550 community gardens throughout the five boroughs, and working with the City government to balance their needs with other competing priorities - like the increasing demand to build housing on land where gardens have existed for years.

UFSS ClimateSlide heads

A panel discussion featured the State Climatologist of Illinois, Trent Ford, and the Sustainability Manager for the city of Blacksford, VA, Carol Davis. They discussed the predictions for weather shifts in the Midwest due to climate change in the next 50-100 years, and the potential responses that proactive municipalities could begin to take to mitigate those risks. Ms. Davis talked about her surprise as she discovered how many ways climate change will impact food availability while writing a Climate Vulnerability Report, and how Blacksford is now looking for local urban food systems solutions.

Later in the conference, an Urban Grower Panel featured urban farmers from Detroit, Michigan, and from Mansfield and Akron, Ohio. The three panelists had very different urban farming operations, but the discussion centered on common themes in economics and financial incentives that are necessary to make urban farming viable. Until very recently, the subsidies and grant programs that have propped up traditional rural agriculture have not been available to farms growing in urban and suburban areas. The growers talked about their interactions with the USDA Office of Urban Agriculture and Innovative Production, which was formed through the 2018 Farm Bill. Director Leslie Glover II, a 30-year veteran of USDA, also spoke to USDA’s commitment to supporting all scales of urban agriculture.

A “Lightning Poster Session” highlighted four of the submitted conference posters (there were over 30 research posters in the gallery). These winning posters covered the work of the Flint & Genesee Food Policy Council, a new locally relevant measure of food insecurity that was developed in Santa Clara County, California by the University of California; and two research projects examining the potential of amaranth greens and food-bearing trees as climate-smart solutions for urban food access. 

Finally, the closing session was offered by Rev. Dr. Carl P. Wallace, sharing the work of his Abundant Life Farm in Akron, Ohio. This urban farm focuses on youth development, and also partners with USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service to create and test new accessible technologies for season extension. “The Rev” (as his students called him) presented plans for a cost-effective and energy-efficient “mid-tunnel” device that can be installed inside a passive-solar high tunnel to create the conditions for year-round growing in cold climates. He was passionately focused on helping small farmers grow more food. 

Breakout Sessions: Original Research

The conference also offered breakout sessions, where attendees could present original research on various topics. Each session offered four presenters whose research was on the same theme, followed by questions and discussion.

I attended a session focused on Climate Change and Food Waste, where attendees presented original research about improving drought resilience on urban farms, using black soldier flies for highly efficient composting of food waste, developing an urban biomass circular economy with emerging anaerobic digestion technology, and about building a library of accurately-translated and culturally relevant food safety training materials for refugee and immigrant farmers. 

During the second breakout, I couldn’t stay put and I went between several different rooms to hear topics that were relevant to our work at FIC. First, the CEO of Denver Urban Gardens shared their model for a centrally-organized but mostly volunteer-led network of 200+ community gardens and 24 food forests throughout the metropolitan area. I was especially interested in their “Tree Steward” program that trains volunteers to manage urban orchards.

I also heard a short talk about a professional development program to improve capacity in urban food systems offered by Kansas State University. It revolves around a webinar series on in-demand urban food systems topics, which is free and publicly available. Finally, I heard about a pilot of a new specialty crop farm manager training program at a prison in central Ohio, implemented in partnership with Central State University, Ohio’s HBCU Land Grant institution. The program focuses not only on the job skills training, but on the therapeutic value of farming for inmates: “plants don’t talk, but they respond to care”.


The pinnacle of the Symposium, for me, was the opportunity to tour some of the educational urban farms and gardens in the Columbus area. 

I took a morning bus tour to an amazing student-led farm project at Granville High School, about 30 minutes outside of Columbus. Since 2006, teacher Jim Redding has been supporting his students with planning, fundraising and advocacy as they have built a farm with a hoophouse, greenhouse, goats(!), and 98-acres of restored prairie. Everything is student-driven, and Mr. Redding teaches persistence, patience, and perseverence. He was truly an inspiration.

UFSS Granville farm

UFSS Granville Goat




The tour also took us to the Kids Care Academy. This early care and education (ECE) program has a garden designed for infants and toddlers to be able to safely play in it, that also produces food for their lunches. KCA partners with local business Clean Plate Club to provide nutrition and fitness education for the kids. 

This garden was wonderfully designed, with a fenced grassy area of raised beds, one bed for each classroom. A fence separated the educational garden from a production garden, planted with greens, tomatoes and hot peppers and buzzing with pollinators. Food from the production garden goes into the children's meals, while food from the educational side goes right into their mouths. 


Our last stop was the Highland Youth Garden, a nonprofit urban farm located in a diverse low-income neighborhood, that works with several nearby schools to provide programming. Their jam-packed city lot had a hoophouse, rainwater cistern, composting area - and an outdoor kitchen was being constructed as we toured. The nonprofit runs daily garden programming for children in grades K-5. 

UFSS HYG sidewalk


UFSS HYG sign.jpg

UFSS HYG Hoophouse

An evening program of tours was held at Waterman, the research center of the OSU College of Food, Agriculture, and Environmental Sciences. This facility features indoor and outdoor growing environments, community gardens, rain gardens and prairie plantings, education space and interpretive signs, located right on the fringe of Columbus. It was similar to Kalamazoo Valley's Food Innovation Center in its facilities and offerings, and its emphasis on volunteerism and community outreach, but about 20 times bigger. The tour of the Controlled Environment Agriculture Lab was especially validating, as I bonded with the research manager about the challenges with managing pests even in highly-controlled indoor environments.  

UFSS Waterman CEAext

UFSS Waterman CEAint

UFSS Waterman Garden Sign


Overall this was an inspiring, grounding, and energizing experience. I look forward to following up on many of the connections I made (and hope you will too, by clicking on the many links I embedded here), and reading the Symposium Proceedings (when published).

I am pleased to see that urban agriculture is becoming more mainstream, expansive, and broadly defined, and optimistic about USDA’s ongoing support for the small hyperlocal farmers that fill critical gaps left by the national food system. Across the board, education was core to the mission of all the organizations featured at the Symposium - just like it is here at Kalamazoo Valley. I look forward to the next meeting in 2026!

June 25, 2024
By: Rachel Bair

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