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Gathering at the Community Dinner Table

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Gathering at the Community Dinner Table

Rachel Chadderdon Bair is happy to return to her hometown of Kalamazoo. Taking on the new role as the Kalamazoo Valley Community College, Director for Sustainable and Innovative Food Systems is a dream come true for her.

“I’ve been watching this project since it was announced,” Bair said. “When the position came up, I thought it sounded like an incredible opportunity to be involved in something exciting and groundbreaking right in my hometown. We have a program that no one else does.”

The KVCC Bronson Healthy Living Campus comprises the Food Innovation Center, 224 E. Crosstown Parkway; the Culinary/Allied Health Building, 418 E. Walnut St. to be open in the spring; and the Kalamazoo Community Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services Integrated Health Services Clinic (KCMHSAS), 615 E. Crosstown Parkway. Both the KCMHSAS clinic and the Food Innovation Center opened at the start of the new year.

Culinary and sustainable brewing classes began in the fall. The new facilities will offer more classes moving forward, including Nursing, EMT Training, and Respiratory Therapy. There is also a potential for food programs to be integrated into the services provided at KCMHSAS, to work with Bronson, and programs at the Western Michigan University Homer Stryker M.D. Medical School.

Bair will be involved with operating the food hub at the Crosstown Parkway location. The former Kalamazoo Area Math and Science Center (KAMSC) student and Portage Northern High School graduate holds a Master of Public Health degree in Health Behavior and Health Education, and a Master of Science in Natural Resources from the University of Michigan.

Bair is no stranger to increasing accessibility to fresh and nutritious food to low-income people, and those who with limited transportation. She brings expertise in running a farmer’s market in a low-income area of Ypsilanti and the Double Up Food Bucks program, a national model to connect fresh food with low-income families.

It has long been known that food directly affects our health, both physically and mentally. Obesity is a huge concern in Michigan, and the health effects cost nearly $3 billion annually.

“When the closest store is a convenience store or a gas station, healthy choices are limited for some families,” said Bair.

So what is the definition of a community-based, sustainable food system and what will it look like?

A broad definition recognized by the industry is: A food system in which everyone has financial and physical access to culturally appropriate, affordable, nutritious food that was grown and transported without degrading the natural environment, and in which the general population understands nutrition and the food system in general.

There are many pieces that must come together to make this happen. Bair is definitely up for the task and has been working on it since her arrival in June 2015.

Bair’s top three priorities:

#1 Education-
“We are a community college, so education is always our top priority,” shared Bair. “Among many things are vegetable growing, urban farming, nursing, culinary classes, sustainable brewing, training the next generation of chefs, food literacy for 4-6th graders. The list goes on.”

#2 Operating a Food Hub
“We’ll be working with local farmers to bring in their produce and we’ll do light processing. Bronson Hospital is our first customer, and we hope to move on to facilitate more connections between institutions and local growers,” said Bair. “This piece also includes a demonstration of urban farming and community gardens.”

#3 Utilizing Community Connections
“It is crucial to bring together Institutions (schools, etc.) with local fresh produce. Local farmers will be certified in food safety. Concentration will be on bringing all of the players together,” shared Bair. “Already, a neighborhood nutrition initiative-"Healthy Choices Matter was launched with Edison Neighborhood (http://www.edisonneighborhood.com/) in October.”

How this all works together on one campus is not magical, but rather a lot of people and groups are working very hard to leave a sustainable path. For example, one of Bronson Healthcare sustainability goals is to obtain 70 percent of their food locally, tapping further into Michigan’s piece of the $91 billion agricultural pie and pumping it back into the community.

“Everyone at the table is connected - there is a connection between food and health, we’re training the next generation of chefs to cook with healthy produce, and the mental health component is affected by the food we eat,” said Bair.

The hope is that more ideas and community players will come to that table. For example- a recent fundraiser at Arcadia Brewing, went towards scholarships for Sustainable Brewing students.

“We have an incredible team in our community - Kalamazoo is ready and needs this right now,” said Bair. There has been so much work done by Loaves and Fishes, Fair Food Matters and the People’s Co-op.

“This community is the right-size, and a generous philanthropic community - we are fortunate to have that,” said Bair.

*Eventually, about 1,000 students are expected to work and study on that campus.

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