Two major challenges are at the forefront of society this year: COVID-19 and social equity disparities.

Both issues highlighted shortcomings in food systems across the country and the Center for Food Systems and Community Transformation at Virginia Tech, created in late 2019, saw the opportunity to address these issues through projects and programming on racial justice, equitable food access and availability, and community resiliency.

“The reality of systemic racism in society and how it is interconnected to the food system became even more apparent during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Kim Niewolny, associate professor in the Department of Agricultural, Leadership, and Community Education and director of the center, which is in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “As a land-grant institution, we have a responsibility to dig deep to better understand how and why racial disparities occur so that we may part of the solution to dismantle the attitudes, practices, and structures that hold racism in place as a step toward creating a more just and sustainable food system that works for everyone.”

Through Virginia Cooperative Extension’s Community, Local, and Regional Food Systems Program Team, the center collaborated to offer a variety of resources and trainings. One such collaboration included the Virginia Food System Council and the Virginia Farmers Market Association in statewide efforts to address emergency food access, farmer and food business support during food system disruptions. Further collaborations included a virtual Virginia farm-to-table program led by Lenah Nguyen, an Extension agent in Fauquier County.

The center also created a COVID-19 in the Food System compendium of concept papers and resources that address the structural impacts on the food system, strategies for mutual aid, the significance of grief and farm stress, and “case study” vignettes highlighting local examples of resiliency in Virginia's food system.  As an Extension center, the compendium also includes a collection of practical resources from Virginia Tech, Virginia State University, and local and national partners.

Renard and Chinette Turner of Vanguard Ranch, Ltd. with Y.C. Yates. Photo courtesy of Barrett Self.

Renard and Chinette Turner of Vanguard Ranch, Ltd. with Y.C. Yates. Photo courtesy of  Barrett Self.
Renard and Chinette Turner of Vanguard Ranch, Ltd. with Y.C. Yates. Photo courtesy of Barrett Self.

To further impact the community and its citizens, the Center for Food Systems and Community Transformation utilizes in-depth learning circles, projects, events, and fellows in its quest to address these and other food systems issues.

The in-depth learning circles are a monthly space for conversation, peer-to-peer learning, and reflection around issues at the heart of food systems. From June through September of 2020, the center hosted a series on racial justice in the food system, covering topics designed to foster culture in the food system through university-community dialogue focused on the intersection of agriculture and racism in society.

From the resiliency of food systems during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic to land sovereignty in higher education, learning circles advance food systems while addressing timely topics.

To highlight Indigenous foodways, Mohawk chef, author, and Indigenous foods educator, Dave Smoke-McCluskey gave three presentations on corn, beans, and squash on the significance of the three sisters in Indigenous agriculture and cuisine. These virtual talks were co-hosted by the center in partnership with the American Indian and Indigenous Community Center, Native at VT, and the Community Viability Endowment.

Projects are a critical function of the center, one of which is the Virginia Farm to Table Initiative that aims to promote and develop healthy farms and healthy food for the good of all Virginians. This initiative and program is a collaborative effort of ExtensionCollege of Agriculture and Life SciencesVirginia State UniversityUniversity of Virginia, the Virginia Food System Council, and partner organizations, strengthening Virginia’s economic future and food system from the farm to the table. These organizations and partners have developed a Virginia Farm-to-Table Plan and host annual Virginia-Farm-To-Table Conferences.

Other projects at the center include:

None of these projects and events would be possible without center fellows, a critical component of helping the center advance vital food systems. These individuals are at the heart of the effort to implement change in these systems. Fellows are food systems leaders who host or co-plan at least one center event each year and are involved with the center’s other work.

If interested in becoming a center fellow, individuals who are part of a university, organization, or community that follows the mission areas of the center may apply here.

These learning partnerships across Virginia Tech and the commonwealth aim to improve collaboration among a diversity of stakeholders addressing the complexity of food system issues with an emphasis on social equity and community sustainability.

Share this story