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Virginia Food Systems Leadership Institute: From Concept to Course

     4-VA@Mason takes great pride in being the catalyst for hundreds of impactful research projects and innovations in higher education.  This is achieved via micro grant seed funding for Collaborative Research Grants; supporting projects that encourage cooperation between partner schools within the state and capitalize on the strengths of each school.

     However, a new milestone was reached in this effort this spring — as one such grant team partnership morphed from a multi-year, thoughtful, wholistic, statewide Collaborative Research project to another of 4-VA’s foundational endeavors, Shared Courses.  The Shared Course concept has its roots in the 4-VA commitment to identify and deliver top tier courses between partner schools, thus saving the costs involved in bringing unique classes to fruition on each campus.

     The project crossing this boundary is the Virginia Food System Leadership Institute (VFSLI), which found its footings at a 4VA-funded symposium in 2015 at the Smithsonian-Mason School of Conservation in Front Royal.  There, interested faculty were brought together from Virginia Tech, University of Virginia, James Madison University and George Mason University.  Also attending the symposium were campus dining services personnel and sustainability managers. They discussed avenues to harness the intellectual, human, and economic capital of colleges and universities to foster the emerging food economy in Virginia.

   “Immediately, we saw a lot of synergy.  We had a passionate group of folks involved in all areas of food — producers, delivery partners, and consumers.” says Kerri LaCharite, PhD, Assistant Professor in Mason’s Department of Nutrition and Food Studies. “What’s more, we also recognized the need to support small-to medium-sized growers by helping them access institutional markets — a real boost for Virginia’s rural economy.”

     In April of 2016, again under the 4-VA banner, a second symposium convened more than 40 Virginia food system stakeholders including farmers and processors; distributors and Aramark and Sodexo representatives (food service vendors at Virginia colleges); and faculty from the four schools.  Their focus was to increase university sourcing of Virginia-grown food.

     In 2018, the leaders of this effort from the four 4-VA schools developed an intensive four-week class which was piloted at the Smithsonian-Mason School of Conservation.  It was an instant success. 

     Mason Nutrition and Food Studies graduate student Kelly Kogan attended the course.  “This course was a fantastic chance to really immerse myself in the complex and changing chain of food delivery systems in Virginia,” Kogan said.  “I also loved the mix of students who attended.  We were graduates and undergraduates representing five schools.”

     This year, the latest breakthrough is the course: NUTR 626 Food Systems — a fully online, asynchronous, and synchronous, class offered through 4-VA Shared Courses program.  It will run Monday through Friday May 24 through June 17 with synchronous sessions 12-1 pm and 5-6:30 pm. Although Mason’s LaCharite and UVA’s Tanya Deckla Cobb will take the lead, the teaching will be divided between all the schools – including Tech’s Kim Niewolny and Michael Broderick from JMU. This year, this top team is joined by former Virginia Secretary of Agriculture Basil Gooden, currently a visiting scholar at VCU.


(Part of the VFSLI team on a recent call:  Clockwise from top right:  Kerri LaCharite, Basil Gooden, Michael Broderick and Tanya Deckla Cobb.)   

     “This is a one-of-a-kind class which could only have been developed through a true collaborative effort,” explains LaCharite.  “Each school contributed something vital to the project, and we are the better for it.  But, without the 4-VA funding, this would never have happened.  We’ve gone from a concept to a reality which will benefit students – and, subsequently, food system sustainability, farmers, schools, and businesses throughout Virginia.”