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From Seed to Saute

KVCC student Tristin Janson, left, and production manager Ben Bylsma, far right, work a row of plants as Rachel Bair and instructor Lee Arbogast (center left and right, respectively) observe.
KVCC students learn food innovation from the ground up

When a 2013 state study indicated that more than 64 percent of Kalamazoo County adults were overweight or obese, Kalamazoo Valley Community College (KVCC), Bronson Methodist Hospital and Kalamazoo County Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services (KCMHSAS) decided to do something about it.

The coalition knew the root of this health crisis was also its solution: food. It responded with the creation of the Bronson Healthy Living Campus, adjacent to downtown Kalamazoo, which opened for classes this year and includes KVCC’s Food Innovation Center and Culinary/Allied Health Building and the mental health department’s Integrated Health Services Clinic.

“I think that we’ve been cognizant of the fact that food and health are top issues for the community,” says Mike Collins, vice president for college and student relations at KVCC.

The Bronson Healthy Living Campus utilizes an approach to this problem that focuses on the relationship between food and health. Its programs currently include certificates and associate and transfer degrees in the culinary arts, sustainable brewing, nursing, emergency medical technology, and respiratory care.

Hands-on experiences are the hallmark of the programs. For example, students in the culinary-arts program will spend time working in the Food Innovation Center’s 10,000-square-foot greenhouse and 16,400-square-foot indoor growing spaces and its Food Hub.

“You’ll potentially have this class who is harvesting and taking food into the Food Hub area and then in the afternoon or the next morning — if they’re in the culinary program — they’ll be receiving the same stuff they harvested the day before,” says Ben Bylsma, production manager at the Bronson Healthy Living Campus.

Getting started

The emergence of the Bronson Healthy Living Campus resulted from ongoing study performed by the coalition, starting in 2013. Preliminary work incorporated a series of focus-group meetings with local farmers, restaurateurs and others in the food-service industry. The coalition visited folks involved with the Greening of Detroit, a collaboration in Detroit that seeks to repurpose land to create productive green spaces with trees and community gardens.

The partners also visited food hubs in Michigan, including Cherry Capital Foods in Traverse City, West Michigan FarmLink in Grand Rapids, and Sprout Food Hub in Battle Creek. As defined by the National Food Hub Collaboration, a food hub “is a business or organization that actively manages the aggregation, distribution, and marketing of source-identified food products primarily from local and regional producers in order to satisfy wholesale, retail and institutional demand.”

Rachel Bair, director of sustainable and innovative food systems at the Bronson Healthy Living Campus, participated in a national food hub management program at the University of Vermont and visited several food hubs in that state.

“The joke among food hubbers is that if you’ve seen one food hub, you’ve seen one food hub — by that we mean that every one is different,” she says. “Each local market has different gaps that the hub is looking to fill.”

In Kalamazoo, the coalition focused its business model on the institutional market, such as local hospitals, public schools, colleges and universities. Bronson donated the 14-acre tract on which the campus sits.

“Bronson was really interested because they have a corporate goal of sourcing about 60 percent of their food from local sources, and right now they have not been able to get to that number,” says KVCC’s Collins.

KVCC had also been entertaining the idea of a new culinary program. Eventually, the two paths merged. The distinguishing factor of KVCC’s culinary program, Collins says, is that its students not only gain a strong culinary education, but also work on the farm and truly embrace the farm-to-table concept.

Does he believe that the Food Innovation Center will help Bronson reach that goal of sourcing 60 percent locally?

“I think they’ll be able to exceed that,” he says.

Growing and selling food

Bair says the Food Hub will function like a business, acting as a local food aggregator, processor and distributor. It will take in fresh produce from local farms and its own greenhouse and growing spaces, and students will wash, chop, peel and translate it into an easy, ready-to-use form to sell to area institutions such as Bronson Hospital, Borgess Medical Center, KVCC, Western Michigan University and Kalamazoo Public Schools.

“These outlets serve many meals daily,” she says. “Bronson alone serves 1.5 million meals a year.”

Bylsma, the produce manager, says while local institutions want to get more food locally, there’s been a problem that has stood in their way: processing the food.

“Typically potatoes have dirt on them, carrots have tops on them, and they (the institutions) don’t have the capacity to process (the food) and to do that extra labor that goes into it,” he explains. “So KVCC identified that need to take these potatoes from local farms and peel them, cube them, so they go to food processing in a format that the institutions are used to.”

Once the coalition partners work out the kinks of this institutional business model, they plan to consider other ideas, such as distributing food from local farms to restaurants and chefs or area grocery retailers, Bair says. Other ideas being explored include a multi-farm CSA (community-supported agriculture) program, a food truck to use as a mobile food stand or to provide nutrition education and cooking demonstrations, and the creation of retail spaces.

The farm-to-table movement has significant application for KVCC’s students. Through the culinary institute, the Food Hub and the greenhouse and other growing spaces, those in the Associate of Applied Science degree program in Culinary Arts and Sustainable Food Systems will gain hands-on experience growing, processing and preparing food. Students will plant, harvest and process crops, then learn how to prepare the food into healthy, tasteful meals served at the restaurant in the Culinary/Allied Health Building.

This farm-to-table work is an important part of the students’ learning experience and provides appreciation of what it takes to grow good food, says John Korycki, director of culinary education at the Bronson Healthy Living Campus.
KVCC students will grow vegetables in the Food Innovation Center’s greenhouse and in a 10,000-square-foot fenced area that has four 25- by 48-foot raised beds. Eventually, the FIC will also have a hoop house, which is a passive solar greenhouse.

Local farmers will be tapped to teach the 12-week Summer/Fall Crops Practicum and the 15-week Winter Crops Practicum to approximately 24 students per session.

Within these practicums, students become familiar with hydroponics, a process of growing plants in sand, gravel or liquid; aeroponics, a process of growing plants in an air or mist environment; and aquaponics, a process that combines hydroponics and aquaculture (the rearing of aquatic animals or cultivation of aquatic plants for food) and utilizes waste from farmed fish to provide nutrients to plants. The students also learn about vertical growing in the FIC’s 3,000-square-foot grow room, in which they raise basil, chard, lettuce and other greens. Bylsma says this kind of system works well in urban areas, where square footage comes at a premium.

“Instead of having a pump for every single bed, I have one pump that runs all four beds,” he says. “It’s one of those things where you pay more for the structure but less for electricity, and you only have one pump instead of four.”

In the vertical growing system, there is a reservoir below the lowest bed. The pump is used to push the water from the reservoir to the top bed. “Each bed is equipped with a bell siphon, which allows it to fill to a level we have set and then drain completely, filling the bed below it,” Bylsma explains. “This runs two to three times per week.”

Closely observing costs and conducting experiments will be other elements of the students’ study. The FIC has experimented with different kinds of lights, working with a group of local high school students who conducted a research project growing groups of radish seedlings using 12, eight or four bulbs. The study showed little difference in growth rates among the samples.

“You can, in theory, use a third of the energy to get the same result,” Bair says. “No farmer is going to take that risk (of experimenting) if their profit is depending on it, but we’re an educational facility and we can do those studies and then share the results.”

Learning the seasons

Bylsma, Bair and Korycki all say that learning about the seasonality of produce represents one of the biggest components of students’ education. KVCC’s future chefs will learn that sourcing food locally means understanding when crops are harvested — such as the fact that local asparagus is available only in May and June.

“One of the activities (is) creating a crop calendar,” Bylsma says. “For them (at first) it’s just a piece of paper, and then it’s like they actually think critically about this.”

Students also learn what to expect when buying local produce — such as that green beans may come with the tips still on them. A chef at an area institution bought green beans locally and was surprised when they arrived with the tips, Byslma says. The institution had to pull workers from other duties to snap the beans and remove the tips. By working on the farm, culinary students won’t face those surprises.

“The culinary students who take our classes will go on into their careers as chefs knowing how to work with farmers, how to handle farm fresh produce and understand the cycles of it and how long they would have to wait if they wanted to special order a crop,” Bair says.

The FIC provides students with a great experience, Bair says, but it’s a microcosm. The greenhouse has eight zucchini plants, for example, while a farm might grow an acre, so the FIC is establishing partnerships with local farms to allow students opportunities to gain experience working on farms as well.

“Those plans are relatively new,” Bair says, “but there are probably half a dozen farms in the area that have agreed to work with us and have our students placed there.”

Over the next five years, she says, the program’s offerings will extend into areas such as food production and processing, and all will have a strong food-safety component.

Leading the hubbub

As those at the helm of the FIC, Bair and Bylsma are well suited to nurture the center’s development. Raised on fresh summer produce from her grandparents’ and parents’ gardens, Bair forged an early connection with nature. In sixth grade, after writing a paper about overpopulation, she declared herself an environmentalist. She earned an undergraduate degree in biology. After a few years working full time in a research lab, Bair wanted to work outside on issues of sustainability and food access. She returned to school and earned master’s degrees in natural resources and the environment and public health from the University of Michigan.

“Food is such an intimate connection that we have with the earth and with each other,” she says. “Our ability to create technological and social systems to feed ourselves is a huge part of what makes us human. Our basic need to eat connects us all, so I find food to be a great entry point for starting a conversation about sustainability.”

Prior to working at the FIC, Bair spent the past five years working as the Double Up Food Bucks program director at Fair Food Network, a nonprofit based in Ann Arbor. Double Up Food Bucks started as a pilot program in Detroit that matches food stamps at farmers’ markets. By the time she left Fair Food Network, Double Up Food Bucks was functioning statewide in Michigan and had two replications outside of the state. Now it is national, Bair says, and still managed by the Fair Food Network.

“I just got very well connected to the various networks and players in our food system, and I’ve continued to stay involved with those networks in this new role,” she says.

Before he came to the FIC, Bylsma worked for the Blandford Nature Center in Grand Rapids on a program called Mixed Greens, which focused on building food gardens at local elementary schools and providing programming and curriculum about gardening and cooking for the children. He also assisted in establishing a still-thriving farm in Jenison and then joined the Peace Corps, where he solidified his desire to become a farmer. Bylsma and his wife, Kristen, returned to Michigan and purchased a 20-acre farm in Caledonia with a greenhouse that allowed for year-round operation. They named it Real Food Farm.

Real Food Farm grows tomatoes — primarily hydroponic greenhouse tomatoes — and Bylsma innovates to deliver a delicious product. Most greenhouse tomatoes come from extensive greenhouses with 30 to 60 acres under one roof, Bylsma says. These large operations, he says, have advantages, such as the ability to invest in specialized equipment because the cost is spread over a large amount of production, but they also have a major disadvantage: The surrounding communities can’t consume the massive number of tomatoes grown there, which means they get shipped across the country.

“The fruits must be picked earlier to be hard enough to be shipped,” he says, “but while that tomato will turn red on the truck, it can’t develop more sugars and flavor since it has been separated from the plant.”

Because tomatoes from smaller growers don’t travel great distances, they retain better flavor and nutritional value.

At Real Food Farm, Bylsma has adapted ideas and converted them down to a scale accessible to a small grower. Though a grower the size of Real Food Farm can’t afford a computerized control system for irrigation — Bylsma says it can cost tens of thousands of dollars for the computer and sensors alone — he is demonstrating the use of sprinkler timers to run the irrigation cycles. A timer valve can be purchased for less than $100, he says.

“We’re trying to demonstrate how the food system does not have to continue on the trend of larger and larger companies controlling the food system,” Bylsma says, “but that with adaptions this food can be produced with the resources we have readily available.”

Bylsma brings his love of innovation to the FIC, applying it to the different growing systems there. Being given the authority to innovate with those systems led Bylsma to take this position.

“We will be constantly tweaking and modifying them to try to improve on their design,” he says.

Bylsma says he is “stuck on” finding ways to grow produce out of season. Although Michigan is a major supplier of fruits and vegetables for the nation and world, the state is limited by its growing season, he says. He wants more food dollars staying in Michigan during the off-season.

“I think that there are many other benefits as well,” Bylsma says, “such as less fuel used for transport and a fresher product.”

Looking to the future

Bair says KVCC is fully open to the future possibility of one of its students opening his or her own privately operating food hub that would lead to the shutting down of the school’s Food Hub — a strange-sounding idea on the surface. The institution would consider that a success, however, because its ultimate goal is to educate students and help them move into good jobs or entrepreneurship, Bair says.

KVCC has already envisioned and planned for this scenario. The Food Hub was designed to be flexible. Its floor plan uses trench drains, she says, which allow equipment to be moved wherever it needs to go, so the space can be repurposed and utilized for an entirely new endeavor.

“Right now we’re in the business of farming and food hubbing because we think it will drive change in our food system that will lead to better jobs, economic growth and healthier food for everyone while also creating a unique, hands-on learning experience for our students,” Bair says. “If we can prove out a model that works, and one of our students can replicate the model as an independent business, there won’t be any need for us to fill that gap any longer. We’ll move on to our next challenge that needs to be carefully addressed.”

Lisa Mackinder

Lisa’s work has previously appeared in various Chicken Soup for the Soul books, Animal Wellness, Dog World, Michigan Meetings and Events Magazine, MiBiz, and other publications. Though having covered a wide-range of topics, Lisa most enjoys composing people-centric pieces, as well as those featuring nature and animals. She lives in Portage with her husband, and when not at her Mac, participates in outdoor activities, including fly fishing, gardening and hiking.

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