New director of Yale Sustainable Food Project announced

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Mark Bomford

Mark Bomford, an innovator in the field of sustainable food systems, has been appointed the director of the Yale Sustainable Food Project, a comprehensive program that has helped spearhead a national movement across college campuses to change the way people eat and think about food. Bomford comes to Yale from the University of British Columbia (UBC) to guide Yale’s food consciousness-raising program into its second decade.

At UBC, Bomford founded and managed the Centre for Sustainable Food Systems, a far-reaching and multi-faceted organization that includes a 60-acre “learning and research” farm — the last working farm in the city of Vancouver — and 150 academic and community programs linking people to their source of food and, through food, to each other.

The son of an extension agent in the Canadian equivalent of the Agricultural Extension System, Bomford grew up in a farming community in the Western Great Plains of Canada, which, as late as the 1980s was still being settled by homesteaders.

He earned a B.Sc. at UBC in agroecology, a degree that combines the sciences of agriculture and ecology within a socioeconomic context.

Bomford’s view of food as a “great convener,” of people and ideas inspired him to transform the abandoned research fields at the University of BC into a working farm, a living laboratory, and community center, where annually more than 3,500 students and faculty members from every academic discipline, as well as local residents representing a cosmopolitan variety of cultures and ethnicities, meet to grow crops and learn.

The Centre for Sustainable Food Systems, which Bomford founded in 2005, serves as an extension of the university, he says. The centre combines the missions of research, teaching, and engaging the local community in a setting that, Bomford contends, has many advantages over the traditional bricks-and-mortar model of an academic institution. The universality of food bridges the gap between town and gown and poets and engineers in ways the classroom can’t, asserts Bomford. The farm also serves as a laboratory for scientific research, at least half of it applied to understanding climate change. “Understanding what’s happening at the biophysical level with the exchange of greenhouse gases in agricultural soils is an essential piece of the climate change puzzle,” he says.

Most importantly, farming programs such those he created in Vancouver, and similar programs already in place at Yale, serve as a catalyst for change, he says, in effect empowering people at the ground level to take control of their own food supply. To drive home the urgency of that mission, Bomford offers this lesson: Cities all over the world grew up where farmland was richest, and as those cities grew, they began to encroach on the very land that fed them. Bomford puts the modern, global dilemma of feeding an increasingly urban population in starkest terms: “If you want to feed people in a city where there are 50 to 150 people living on every hectare [2.2 acres], you can’t escape the fact that it takes a half-hectare to feed every person. … It’s pretty simple math. Cities can’t exist without farms”

Bomford sees the urban garden movement, exemplified by the Yale Farm on Edwards Street, as a very hopeful sign for the future, even though city gardens might never supply enough food to feed the urban population. “We’re looking at ways to change the world view of someone who has no experience on a farm in the conventional sense,” he says, noting that is precisely what this trend is helping to achieve. “An urban farm can affect thousands, or tens of thousands of people, while a rural farm, which might actually be feeding tens of thousands of people, may remain unseen, unknown out of sight, and out of mind.”

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Dorie Baker:, 203-432-1345