Friday August 12, 2016

Access to Fresh Produce Through Sustainable Urban Agriculture

By Karen Updyke

On an aging asphalt parking lot in downtown Dayton, multiple raised garden beds grow fresh, nutritious produce for The Foodbank, Inc. of the Miami Valley.

From this new urban garden, The Foodbank’s mobile units transport the nutritious harvest to area distribution centers for easy access to people in Greene, Montgomery and Preble counties who are food insecure.

Last year, “9.8 million pounds of food and 2 million pounds of fresh produce were delivered to over 125,000 people in the Miami Valley who are food insecure,” says University of Dayton Assistant Professor Kellie Schneider. The urban garden is a way to expand the amount of fresh produce available for distribution.

For over two years, Schneider has assisted The Foodbank by using her engineering skills to optimize their operations. Today, Schneider continues to provide “community-based operations research” to serve, inform and optimize The Foodbank’s processes — routing, garden design, auditing, spacing and deliverables.

This summer, to help with The Foodbank’s inaugural urban garden initiative, Schneider formed a research team with funding from the School of Engineering’s new Summer Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE) program, the University’s Hanley Sustainability Institute program and the engineering management and management science graduate programs.

The urban garden grows healthy food that is delivered to convenient area locations for accessibility. To improve the system, the faculty-mentored, student-involved research partnership concentrated on a structured systems engineering approach to increase efficiency, reduce operational costs and advise The Foodbank’s master gardener, Alex Klug.

The research team’s project objective was to develop an “easy-to-use survey to collect data about client produce preferences and cooking habits that would inform produce production planning and develop educational materials,” says Schneider.

The survey was based on Klug’s recommendations on produce that does well in an urban garden setting. In turn, the survey advised Klug of Miami Valley client produce preferences and cooking habits. The collaboration of master gardener, engineering researchers and survey results shaped a systematic plan for The Foodbank’s urban garden.

Schneider says that their primary summer activities included:

Schneider’s research partners were Mark Rasmussen, undergraduate mechanical engineering major and recipient of the engineering SURE grant; Venkat Rajeev Reddy Malipeddi, computer science graduate student; and Hassan Alhashim, engineering Bachelor’s + Master’s participant with majors in undergraduate mechanical engineering technology and graduate engineering management. Malipeddi and Alhashim were funded through the Hanley Sustainability Institute and the engineering management and management science graduate programs.

According to Klug, “This first summer’s lessons learned and the research team’s recommendations advanced The Foodbank’s multipurpose plan for urban garden space and delivery systems.” Klug also attested to the team’s willingness to go beyond their scope of work with other informative suggestions. Malipeddi shared one suggestion with Klug that in India they “whitewash” the asphalt for a cooler foundation. Klug immediately stored his idea as a possible urban garden project of the future.

Over the years, Schneider’s novel concepts have supported The Foodbank’s operations efficiency, and she “hopes to do this for a long time.” The longer she helps, the more she recognizes different ways, as she says, “to shorten the line and reduce the needs of the food insecure in the Miami Valley. My work with The Foodbank falls under the umbrella of community-based operations research. The research problems are complex and nuanced. However, regardless of the constraints we face, we must always strive to provide the highest level of service to our clients – our hungry neighbors.”

Schneider expresses sincere gratitude to the University of Dayton’s Hanley Sustainability Institute, the School of Engineering’s SURE program and the engineering management and management science graduate programs for sponsoring their research. The contributions empowered the research team to collaborate, innovate and make The Foodbank's urban garden a reality.

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