Many organizations are striving to find answers for the more than 200,000 people in Indianapolis who do not have easy access to food. Butler University is one of the largest. Its Center for Urban Ecology and Sustainability (CUES) is working with over 20 community partners to do more than simply get more food to more people.

They want to create the social change necessary to eliminate the need.

“We’re trying to look at problems facing the campus and Indianapolis and bring together the expertise needed to solve those problems,” said CUES Director Dr. Julia Angstmann.

Indianapolis is one of the worst food deserts in the country, she says.

“We don’t have enough grocery stores, or people in neighborhoods don’t have transportation to get to them. Families have to buy groceries at convenience stores.”

Most people are unaware of the situation, Angstmann says. That’s why the CUES is taking the three-pronged approach reflected in its mission: “To research, educate, and empower change to inform and inspire a more sustainable future.”

Like food, it all starts on a farm.

Teaching through a food lens

Nestled in the curve of West Campus Drive is The Farm at Butler. This one-acre space is the heart of the CUES’ efforts to solve the city’s nutrition problems.

The Farm is where the CUES begins the “research” and “educate” parts of its mission with Butler students—a rather rare thing, it turns out.

“Most college farms are used in co-curricular ways: The farms sell or donate to the community, but they aren’t integrated into the curriculum,” Angstmann says.

The Farm at Butler is much more. Yes, it has been a source of food to the community and campus, but it’s also an educational site and a significant component of curriculum and community partnerships.

“Using a campus farm as a ‘place’ is relatively new in the experiential learning arena, so we’re getting a lot of interest from other universities,” Angstmann says. “We’ve been able to bring in about a million dollars in funding from the National Science Foundation to innovate curriculum using The Farm as a contextual place. We are in classes all over campus, and community partnerships are woven into all of this.”

The Farm at Butler

The Farm pops up in some unexpected classes—for example, Senior Lecturer Dr. Brent Hege’s Religious Studies class.

“Brent and I had a great discussion. How do you teach religious studies through the lens of food? We reimagined the course through food and farming, and he sent his students out to urban farm spaces where they wrote about urban and industrial farming through a loving eye vs. an arrogant eye,” Angstmann says.

The CUES is also part of classes in Biology, Business, Chemistry, Communication, Education, Environmental Studies, and Pharmacy.

A new minor is now available from the Science, Technology, and Environmental Studies program: Applied Local Food Systems. This minor aims to create a cross-disciplinary program where students, instructors, community members, and intern host sites will learn together.

“As humans, we’re viscerally connected to food, so it lends itself to being tied to individual values and ethics in many disciplines,” Angstmann says. “A lot of people ask why Butler has a farm when we don’t have an agricultural program. Our answer is that we support classes you’d never expect us to support, and it has connected the University to more community partners in the past decade.”

Food security through collaboration

One of the most enduring of those community partnerships is with the nonprofit Kheprw Institute. The partnership began about six years ago with an elementary-school student.

“I heard they had an aquaponics system designed by a 10-year-old and started meeting with them,” Angstmann laughs.

Kheprw nurtures young people to be critical thinkers, active in working with marginalized communities to bring about change. They teach that people are a community’s most valuable asset.

“They’re all about raising capacity through education,” Angstmann says. “Kheprw has so much social capital—we truly support each other. It’s been a really good relationship.”

Kheprw became a lifeline during COVID-19. A closed University meant no on-campus sales for The Farm. They had to find another way to distribute their food.

“Other local farms worked with the Marion County Health Department and Gleaners [Food Bank] to provide food to those in need. We couldn’t because we weren’t already registered,” Angstmann says. “The Kheprw Institute helped us by purchasing our product, then distributing it through their Community Controlled Food Initiative and with donations to the Near Northside Food Pantry.”

A true partner, Kheprw was then part of the CUES’ decision earlier this year to begin selling all of The Farm’s yield to Butler’s new dining provider, Bon Appetít. Now, The Farm can “knock on the back door with three cases of something fresh, and they’ll figure out how to use it,” Angstmann says.

“Our goal has been to make food a centerpiece on campus. That’s starting to happen,” she says. “We wanted to get The Farm integrated into curriculum, and we wanted to provide local farmers with support. We’re doing those things now.”

Social issues impede hunger solutions

The other piece of the CUES mission is “empower.” For Angstmann, it’s impossible to help the city create sustainable food systems without taking a hard look at the social issues surrounding them and determining how to empower residents to be resilient.

“Our strategic plan is very focused on social justice. We’re looking at everything we do from a social justice lens and asking ourselves what we can do,” she says. “Social justice is being addressed in many areas on campus. We hope people see our Center as a partner in those efforts. It’s part of our mission. And we’re really committed to work with Indianapolis partners and help combine resources in order to change the way people look at food.”