UMaine, UMF partner to build circular food system research team, address food waste

Researchers at the University of Maine and the University of Maine Farmington (UMF) have received a grant of $29,996 to facilitate development of a circular food system that promotes value-added processing of rural agricultural surplus and by-products to address food waste and food insecurity challenges.

The project is funded by the University of Maine System Research Reinvestment Fund (RRF) as part of the Rural Health and Wellbeing Grand Challenge Pilot Initiative. The grand challenge seeks to leverage resources from across the university system on rural development to fulfill the goals outlined in the state’s economic strategy. Projects funded by the Grand Challenge program also support achievement of the system’s research and development goal, to “make Maine the best state in the nation in which to live, work and learn by 2030.”

Jesse Minor, an assistant professor of geography and environmental planning at UMF will lead the interdisciplinary team which includes collaborators Mark Pires, sustainability coordinator at UMF; Travis Blackmer and Susanne Lee, faculty fellows at UMaine’s Senator George J. Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions; Jason Bolton, Cooperative Extension food safety specialist; and UMaine professor of soil science and forest resources Ivan Fernandez.

Project objectives include collection and analysis of geographic data that will be used to identify opportunities for development of Maine’s circular food system and value-added food processing infrastructure; developing economic and regional demand models for fresh foods and for distinctive Maine food products; overseeing complete carbon accounting for local food production and consumption; and exploring financing options for establishing new food processing facilities and infrastructure.

The overarching goal is to develop a model collegiate internship program that uses structured faculty input and key stakeholder engagement to provide experiential learning and workforce skill development opportunities for UMS undergraduates as they work to solve Maine’s grand challenges.

As part of interdisciplinary teams, the interns will apply resources from across Maine’s public university system to sustainably address the persistent food security and food waste challenges facing Maine communities. Integrating Maine food system stakeholders into faculty-led student research teams and course-based research projects is expected to foster application of academic learning to solve real-world problems while developing students’ professional skills.

Intern Simon Murphy, a senior studying environmental policy and planning at UMF, recognizes the benefits of the program.

“I enjoy my work for the Mitchell Center and getting involved with stakeholders in Maine’s food processing infrastructure. I have been learning about creating professional networks, creating focus group events, and communicating in the professional work environment,” Murphy said. “Some of the best practices in the research I am conducting is to have clear and constant communication with my team and the stakeholders.”