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Hanley Sustainability Institute

From rural Ohio to West Dayton to India: Food security a passion for UD senior

By Jenny Capka

Emily Shanahan grew up on a 135-acre farm in Hillsboro, Ohio, where her family grew corn and soybeans. That background, combined with a 2018 semester of service at the Dakota Center and an Honors Program trip to India this summer, crystallized her passion to work in food security.

“I was already involved in (the Hanley Sustainability Institute) and knew sustainability was something I was interested in and passionate about,” Shanahan said. “All my other past experiences and opportunities kind of coalesced to make me realize food security and advocacy is really what I want to get into and what I want to use my education and career for.”

Shanahan, a senior at the University of Dayton majoring in international business with minors in human rights and sustainability, started as a volunteer with HSI and ascended to student leader. In April, she joined the food and growing team, which has a goal of supplying dining services with fresh produce.

“I never really thought much of it other than, ‘this is farming, this is what we do,’” Shanahan said of her upbringing. “The more I learned about it I started making connections and it started to make sense. No wonder our pond gets all this algae when they use fertilizer; it runs down.”

During her semester of service, she was given permission to turn the Dakota Center’s unused backyard into a garden, a goal for which executive director Mike Miller didn’t have time. 

“I said ‘I’ll do it, sweet,’” Shanahan said. “That’s what I spent my summer on and I still go back and work on it.

“Rural farming and urban gardening look very different but they ultimately have the same goal, which is supplying food. Our own garden close to campus allows us to be transparent with food carbon emissions.”

The Old River Park site has a composting area, a beehive and a garden project led in part by current HSI graduate assistant Lauren Wolford. Shanahan works with fellow team members Marla Diaz, Maura Hohl and Hannah Gibson.

Shanahan said food security — having access to food at any given time —- solidifies HSI’s commitment to a sustainable food supply. HSI grows a variety of vegetables including tomatoes, peppers, carrots, basil, kale, cabbage and sunflowers.

In India, Shanahan saw a different aspect of food security while staying with a host farm family in Sikkim, a small state in the Himalayan mountain range. In 2016, Sikkim became that country’s first state with 100 percent organic farmland, according to media reports. India also has numerous agricultural challenges, the most serious of which is more than 10,000 yearly suicides by Indian farmers and laborers for many reported reasons.

The India experience “was another way to look at food and farming that was so vastly different to what I know,” Shanahan said. “It provided that new perspective and its own challenges with the green revolution; there was a lot of pressure for farmers to enter these predatory contracts with seed companies.”

She said changing practices threaten Indian farmers’ livelihood. “It is their nutrition and food security and their culture and traditions,” Shanahan said. “So much of their language, dress, celebrations, dances and everything is tied to traditional food and traditional farming practices, and they are losing that now.”

Back on campus, Shanahan said the food and growing team’s goal is to create a transparent, low-emission supply chain to dining services.

“Without total transparency, it is hard to know exactly where our food is coming from. You do not know how many people have touched it or what the supply chain was for the tomatoes or vegetables you see in that grocery store,” she said.

One day, she hopes to tell a student, “Oh, this is basil from just over the hill.”

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