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UW Assistant Professor Awarded $5 Million Grant for Sustainable Community Food Project

April 11, 2011
Girl in garden
Alexa Naschold admires cabbage at a community garden. Her mother, Christine M. Porter, UW Department of Kinesiology and Health assistant professor, received a $5 million grant for a multi-state sustainable community food project study. (Photo by Christine Porter)

A University of Wyoming professor is leading a $5-million, multi-state project to build community food systems that nourish populations in both current and future generations.

Christine M. Porter, assistant professor in the College of Health Sciences Division of Kinesiology and Health, leads the five-year "Food Dignity: Action Research on Engaging Food Insecure Communities and Universities in Building Sustainable Community Food Systems," project. It is funded by the United States Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) Competitive Grant program.

This is the largest USDA grant the university has received, says Bill Gern, UW vice president for research and economic development. Porter’s project has three facets: extension, research and education.

The project's extension portion includes five community food initiatives. Each will create a local steering committee to disperse small grants that invest in citizen solutions to their own food system issues.

Two of the initiatives are in Wyoming -- Gayle Woodsum of Action Resources International is organizing the Albany County project and Virginia Sutter of Blue Mountain Associates, Inc. will lead the Wind River Indian Reservation initiative. The others are Dig Deep Farms and Produce in Alameda County, Calif.; Whole Community Project of Cornell Cooperative Extension, Tompkins County, N.Y.; and East New York Farms!, Brooklyn, N.Y.

The research focuses on developing case studies of what each community has already done and during the next five years will make clear what factors influence their successes and failures as they work to create sustainable community food systems that provide ample and appropriate food for all, Porter says.

The education portion aims to create new cross-disciplinary undergraduate minors in sustainable food systems to prepare UW and Cornell University graduate students to engage in this work.

"At UW, the team developing the minor is considering nesting this within a more generic sustainability program of study," Porter says.

She says the project comes at a crucial time in today's economy.

"We are close to peak oil and peak soil, are enduring the greatest wealth and income inequality in decades, and somewhat ironically, face soaring rates of both food insecurity and obesity," Porter says.

While there is no single cure-all for these problems, Porter and her team view community food system development as a core part of the solution.

"We'll never compete with China in making plastic buckets or tennis shoes," she says, "But we can grow, process and sell our own food. The more we localize food systems, the more local jobs we create and the fresher our food is when it reaches our plates."

She also says research shows that medium-sized producers are more productive than industrial-scale farms and also tend to be more attentive to ecological and community sustainability.

While finishing her doctoral degree work, Porter says AFRI had a call for proposals to foster food security and local economic development through a blend of research, extension and education.

That pushed her to "dream bigger than I ever would have before dared." She assembled a team of more than two dozen top-notch community food practitioners and UW and Cornell University representatives for the "Food Dignity" proposal.

Many UW faculty, staff and students are involved in the project, including Urszula Norton, Kent Becker, Bill Gribb, Cole Ehmke, Deborah Paulson, Jill Lovato, Cheryl Geiger, Leslie Darnall and Peggy McCrackin.

For more information about the project, contact Darnall at (307) 766-2141, email or visit the website at

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