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Nelson researcher aims to understand food systems, empower communities in new book

January 22, 2018

When it comes to soils, Steve Ventura is an expert. He’s a Gaylord Nelson Distinguished Professor of Environmental Studies and Soil Science, Chair, Agroecology Program, and director for the Land Tenure Center and Land Information and Computer Graphics Facility.

His most recently published book, “Good Food, Strong Communities: Promoting Social Justice through Local and Regional Food Systems” is the result of Ventura’s years of research and serves as a roadmap for creating a successful food system network within a community.

In 2011 Ventura was tapped to begin this research project by his colleague Greg Lawless, UW Extension, about a food security grant opportunity with the Milwaukee-based organization Growing Power, Michael Fields Agricultural Institute, and many other community partners.

The idea was to observe what these community organizations could achieve if they were unburdened by financial constraints and were able to support innovations to improve their current food system.

Five years and five million dollars later, he published his book with his co-editor Martin Bailkey and 27 other community and academic authors. The grant was sponsored by the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Some of the funds were awarded in $50,000 disbursements over a period of time to 10 different organizations across the country.

Through the USDA food security grant, Ventura’s been able to closely observe how different communities engage with food systems, and how some groups don't have good options. This led to his eventual involvement in the Community and Regional Food Systems Project and interest in food insecurity, which is when people do not have ready access to affordable and nutritious food.

"It's very important to carry on that notion that food systems are a way of empowerment for disadvantaged communities," Ventura expressed. "Having the ability to control how and where food is accessed, what the quality is, what the cultural relevancy is, that’s food sovereignty.”

Though Ventura heeds caution to not engage in what he calls “helicopter research,” a process which refers to researchers who drop into communities just to watch them for research, then leave without ever really interacting with the community. He wanted to strike a balance between community partnership and academic research, to both learn from and build key relationships with the people who were involved with the project.

The model Ventura implemented resonated well with participants like George Reistad, who became involved with the project as a Precollege Enrichment Opportunity Program for Learning Excellence (PEOPLE) program intern.

“The way that they did their community based approach was, I think, very different than a lot of other research based projects that come into communities,” Reistad said. “Because a lot of folks will come in with an agenda, but they didn’t come in and dictate the terms of how the grant should work. I always thought that was really cool.”

Reistad stuck with the program and became heavily involved, helping develop the Food and Agriculture track for the PEOPLE summer program and teaching other students about food systems and the impact it has on everyone. The lessons he learned from this internship helped carry him towards his current position as the City of Madison Food Policy Coordinator.

This sort of professional advancement is just one of the many community empowerment examples Ventura witnessed as other community members took on more leadership roles and greater responsibility within their food system.

And while the grant funding has finished, the results continue to live on through the examples set in this research study and through subsequent grants related to urban agriculture. Ventura hopes his food system guide can be put to good use and, ultimately, change our view of food systems to include individuals and their decision to create a community.

“If everyone knew where our food comes from, it will eventually result in a higher expectation for our food system and it will change the nature of how we farm in general,” Ventura said. “This idea of empowerment through seizing control of local food systems is an important thread and I would hope it becomes part of the legacy of this effort.”

Steve Ventura’s book, “Good Food, Strong Communities: Promoting Social Justice through Local and Regional Food Systems” is available now for purchase through the University of Iowa Press. Watch footage from the book release here.