Clark University senior researches urban farming, potential model for food systems education program

As a LEEP Project fellow at Clark University, Elliot Altbaum studied the practicality of urban food systems. As a LEEP Project fellow at Clark University, Elliot Altbaum studied the practicality of urban food systems.

Take a moment and look in your refrigerator. Do you know where those vegetables came from, or how they were distributed? Are they genetically modified? It is these types of questions and many more that Clark University senior Elliot A. Altbaum is attempting to answer with his ongoing research on food systems.

Altbaum’s research doesn’t stop with his academic thesis. He plans to propose his findings as a real-life model for consideration as an academic program in Food Systems at Clark. His research on urban food systems delves into agriculture, climate, economics, and education.

Urban farming, increasingly in the public eye, has naturally piqued Altbaum’s curiosity.

In order to learn more about the potential of urban farming, Altbaum, who majors in geography, applied for a self-directed LEEP (Liberal Education and Effective Practice) Project and sought work at farms in Minneapolis. More information about LEEP Projects can be found here.

Over the summer, Altbaum worked at two urban farms where he learned more about the practicality of urban food systems. At one, he performed regular planting, weeding, and harvesting duties. At the other, he built a vermicomposting operation, which means composting with the addition of worms.

“With the current trend in urban farming it is easy for people to forget the long history of growing food in cities. For decades people have gardened as a way to bring down grocery costs.”

Altbaum also maintained a blog while he was farming. The blog served as a running account of his experiences, along with relevant book recommendations and his thoughts on local policy, which he learned about while attending Minneapolis Food Policy Council meetings. When he returned to Clark this fall, Altbaum started publishing posts related to his thesis research.

Through his blog, Altbaum hoped to help the public understand the complex and intertwined issues involved in urban farming while realizing the potential of this up-and-coming movement. “Issues of privilege and discrimination affect gardening and urban farming in ways not always recognized,” he writes. “With the current trend in urban farming it is easy for people to forget the long history of growing food in cities. For decades people have gardened as a way to bring down grocery costs.”

Urban farming is nothing new, Altbaum points out. In one blog post, he explains the origins of urban agriculture dating back to 19th century Paris. He writes, “Within the city limits, 8,500 market farms grew enough vegetables for the entire city of one million people.”

While Altbaum reveals urban farming’s potential, he acknowledges the challenges. He hopes that people will read more about urban food systems and “start to understand it in a more nuanced way than is often portrayed in media.” The term “green-glittering” may come to mind, but Altbaum is attempting to maintain a sense of “optimistic realism.” Another challenge he notes is, quite literally, the Real Food Challenge.

In early 2012, Altbaum attended the national summit for the Real Food Challenge, where he learned that other students were taking food systems as a serious political and academic cause. The conference inspired him to study food academically. When he returned to Clark, he signed on to help out with some of the behind-the-scenes organization for the Real Food Challenge.

Altbaum’s focus on food began long before his research on urban farming. During his first two years at Clark, he hosted weekly dinners for friends and their friends. “It was often cooked soup and fresh baked bread for 20 to 30 people. Through this shared space, I learned how lucky I was, and that most people do not have such a strong experience with food, both practically and intellectually.”

Altbaum’s primary research consisted of attending policy meetings, reading different books, farming, and keeping updated on food systems news by joining several listservs. He corroborated research literature in more than 40 different topics from the last decade and condensed it into a taxonomy consisting of nine key topics. The visual of this can be seen on this post. It is certain that the countless farm days and book analyses were not for nothing.

Altbaum’s ongoing research goes beyond the potential of urban food systems; he plans to develop multiple possible outlines for a Food Systems major at Clark. Each outline will include the classes a student would be required to take, in addition to what classes are already offered. Altbaum will take into account university politics and university economic issues, such as budgetary considerations.

Professor of geography Jody Emel, Altbaum’s professor and adviser, knows the value of this research. “It is the first time I know of that a student has produced a curriculum for a major or concentration. It is also unique because it will be a vision that also ‘fits’ Clark.” It is not only at Clark that this program would be unique, she says. “There aren’t that many private schools that have food studies programs, as most of them are in big land-grant schools.”

In addition to his research, Altbaum continues to work with Clark on the Real Food Challenge. His final project for his Economy and the Environment class involves helping audit Dining Services through the Real Food Challenge.

Altbaum has been working with Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid Don Honeman to get a better idea on how this new program might be received by prospective students and their families. “Elliot and I have talked at length with the faculty coordinator of the Food Systems major at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities.  We learned a great deal about how their program was conceived, developed, and marketed,” Honeman said. “Assessing student interest in a Food Systems program is an essential consideration in developing a proposal for a new academic program and Elliot has done all the right things to gauge that interest. We’re looking forward to working with him as the program proposal proceeds.”

In the spring 2014 semester, Altbaum plans to find out how departments and existing programs at Clark might address the needs outlined in his thesis. “Once we have a better understanding of the organizational possibility of a program at Clark, we will push for its creation,” he says. “We think that Clark is positioned to start a program with a unique blend of topics. With students, and prospective students, becoming more and more interested in food systems issues, we think such a program would be successful here.”

Altbaum plans to remain at Clark for another year see this project through. He hopes that by the end of his 5th-year master’s program, Clark will take the proposed Food Systems program into serious consideration.

Aside from the Real Food Challenge, Altbaum is a member of the Ultimate Frisbee team at Clark. He is a 2010 graduate of Southwest High School, in Minneapolis.

Founded in 1887 in Worcester, Massachusetts, Clark University is a small, liberal arts-based research university addressing social and human imperatives on a global scale. Nationally renowned as a college that changes lives, Clark is emerging as a transformative force in higher education today. LEEP (Liberal Education and Effective Practice) is Clark’s pioneering model of education that combines a robust liberal arts curriculum with life-changing world and workplace experiences. Clark’s faculty and students work across boundaries to develop solutions to complex challenges in the natural sciences, psychology, geography, management, urban education, Holocaust and genocide studies, environmental studies, and international development and social change. The Clark educational experience embodies the University’s motto: Challenge convention. Change our world.

 - By Daniel Deutsch ’13/MSPC '14