IonE resident fellow Randel Hanson, a faculty member in the Department of Geography at the University of Minnesota Duluth, is working to create institutional change around food systems. He has developed a 10-acre organic farm to grow produce for UMD dining services. The farm provides dining services with an opportunity to reintegrate minimally processed foods and move toward procuring more produce from area farmers. It also provides students with experiential learning opportunities around food and agricultural systems.
In effort to institutionalize sustainability around food, Hanson has spent a lot of time bringing together the different parts of the University to build a more collaborative, sustainable system. Hanson says, “These entities – administrative, academic, operations, etc. – have evolved rationally to do their job, but they often work irrationally in relation to one another from the viewpoint of sustainability, at cross purposes in carrying out their respective missions, and most often in ways that make each other’s work less fluid.” He says there remain significant challenges to move from symbolic to more substantive changes as well to institutionalize the project.
By changing the UMD dining service system and providing students with experiential opportunities in both food and agriculture systems, Hanson hopes to shift some of the cultural paradigm that currently surrounds food. A particular challenge he faces is false accounting.
“In the case of food and agriculture, cheap food is bankrupting us from the health costs it is creating, not to mention borrowing from future generations by living off of and degrading the natural capital of soil, fresh water systems and biodiversity in general,” he says. With UMD’s dining service the only self-operated one in the University of Minnesota system, remaining economically viable plays a large role in the transformation toward healthier and more sustainable food.
In two years UMD has seen significant progress in the evolution of its dining service toward greater local procurement and scratch cooking. Hanson hopes UMD can lead the way in establishing sustainable practices among other institutions.
Hanson says food and agriculture provide a great medium to learn how to harmonize natural and human systems. “We’re all part of nature and we all eat,” he says. “If we can model sustainable institutions, we can make a giant contribution to the world.”
Hanson says he’s inspired by area sustainable farmers, both old and young, as well as by students for whom food has become one of the big issues of the current generation. His heroes include leaders in the sustainable agriculture movement, such as Wes Jackson and Michael Pollan.
Simone Anzion is a sophomore at the University of Minnesota. When not studying, she’s wandering around the Twin Cities on her bicycle and always on the search for a new adventure. Photo of Randel Hanson courtesy of Christiana Kapsner.