A Reflection on Food Systems, Community Engagement, and Community Food Security: Learning from the Food Dignity Project and the Civic Agriculture and Food Systems Minor At Virginia Tech

This post was contributed Kim Niewolny and Jenny Schwanke:


In just two days spent in Ithaca, NY, a robust exchange of learning took place between two communities active in the work of food systems and community food security.  Jenny Schwanke (Hale Y Community Garden, Blacksburg, VA) and Kim Niewolny (Assistant Professor, Virginia Tech) were invited by the Food Dignity Project to share experiences building relationships between local academic institutions and community food organizations, producers and community-based activists.  The meeting featured a report from, and dialogue with, the community/academic team from Blacksburg and Virginia Tech regarding their experiences with forming a partnership between Virginia Tech and the local community through the Civic Agriculture and Community Food Systems minor at Virginia Tech.  Additionally, Kim and Jenny spoke to the work that is currently underway in developing community-engaged and action-oriented graduate curriculum in community food security as it is related to the curricular goals and purposes of  the Appalachian Foodshed Project.

Food Dignity Project:  Tompkins County

The principal goal of this dynamic forum was to help the Tompkins County Food Dignity team establish an Advisory Board of community members and academics to guide and monitor academic instruction at Cornell University, Tompkins County Community College, and Ithaca College regarding local food system justice and sustainability and student engaged learning with the community, and build resources in the community for food sovereignty.  The Tompkins County Food Dignity team includes several members of the Cornell Cooperative Extension, Cornell University, and the Ithaca College community.

The public forum captured the attention of over 40 people at the Tompkins County Public library on April 10, 2014.  Questions and dialogue were grounded in a number of key points guided by members of the Tompkins County Food Dignity planning team:  Jemila Sequeira, Kirby Edmonds, and Phil McMichael.  Issues discussed were many—all of which could be posed to similar groups as they might embark on a similar path to develop community engaged learning focused community food security and food systems sustainability:

  • How do you build healthy relationships with community members?
  • What kinds of activities are useful to engage students from a community perspective?
  • How important do you think it is for students to have an historical perspective or systemic perspective?  How important do you think it is for community partners?
  • Did you achieve your goals?  Has it improved your community?  If so how, are you any more food secure?  Have you achieved any greater food sovereignty?
  • Did differences in race and class arise in the interactions, and if so, how did deal with them?

Food Dignity is a 5-year initiative to “trace the paths” taken by five US communities and to collaborate in mapping the most appropriate and effective roads forward for creating sustainable community food systems that build food security. The Food Dignity team includes a number of stakeholders at two universities, one “action-think” tank, one college, and five community-based organizations. Food Dignity is supported by Agriculture and Food Research Initiative Competitive Grant no. 2011-68004-30074 from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture. To learn more about the Food Dignity Project, please visit:   http://fooddignity.org/

The Civic Agriculture and Food Systems Minor at Virginia TechCivic Ag Logo

The CAFS minor embodies a commitment to developing and strengthening an economically, environmentally, and socially sustainable agriculture and food systems through building community capacity, using local resources, and serving local/regional markets and citizens. The CAFS minor enables students with to identify, examine, apply, and integrate agriculture and food system sustainability philosophies and activities into personal, community, and professional practice. Following Heifer International’s Sustainable Community Development Model (Aaker, 2007) and Lyson’s (2004) theory of civic agriculture, the framework for the curriculum was developed around knowledge and core values that exemplify:

  • Food security and sovereignty
  • Civic engagement and democratic participation
  • Strong local economies
  • Ecological stewardship
  • Healthy people and communities
  • Collaborative teaching and experiential learningPicture4

The CAFS minor uses civically–engaged approaches to curriculum development and teaching and provides students experiential learning opportunities with community partners who are active members of the New River Valley community. The community partners are truly the seedbed of engagement through the minor.  CAFS minor community partners help foster community engagement through meaningful service-learning experiences that aim to cultivate sustainable food systems and community food security. Each community-based food systems project is developed through an action-oriented collaboration on the part of student, community partner, community partner liaison, and CAFS minor faculty.  To learn more about the CAFS community partners, please visit: http://www.cals.vt.edu/prospective/majors/civic-ag-minor/partners.html

If you would like to learn more about the Civic Agriculture and Food Systems Minor at Virginia Tech, please visit: http://www.cals.vt.edu/prospective/majors/civic-ag-minor/index.html.  Additionally, learn directly from CAFS minor students by clicking on a video link here:   http://www.cals.vt.edu/prospective/majors/civic-ag-minor/multimedia/promotional-video.html



Aaker, J.  (2007).  The heifer model: Cornerstones values-based development.  Little Rock, Arkansas: Heifer International.

Lyson, T.A. (2004). Civic agriculture: Reconnecting farm, food, and community. Medford, MA: Tufts University Press.


This post is by:

Kim Niewolny, assistant professor and extension specialist in the Department of Agricultural and Extension Education at Virginia Tech. In addition to teaching course work within the CAFS minor, Kim is director of the Virginia Beginning Farmer and Rancher Coalition Program and co-director of the Appalachian Foodshed Project, focusing on regional narratives of community food security work, graduate curriculum development, and the Community, Local, Regional Food systems eXtension Community of Practice. 

Jenny Schwanke, Community Garden organizer and Community Partner Liaison for the Civic Agriculture and Community Food Systems minor at Virginia Tech