Q&A with Olivia Richter, Miami University’s Food Fellow

Student in greenhouse holding seedlings
Olivia Richter

Olivia Richter, a senior at Miami University, began her agricultural adventure last spring with the Institute for Food as a member of the Food Studies Course, taught by Dr. Peggy Shaffer. As Olivia is quick to tell, the class truly changed her life. Olivia now serves as a Food Fellow for the Greater Cincinnati Regional Food Policy Council and continues to support this Institute for Food in this role. Read on to learn how Olivia is making a difference in the food world.

Q: So tell me a little bit about the Food Fellowship. What made you interested in applying?

A: The Food Fellowship is a program initiated by the Greater Cincinnati Regional Food Policy Council. They chose one student from five different regional colleges that was passionate about making a difference in the food system. Their goal for us was to complete a project within the school year of our choosing, in conjunction with a Cincinnati organization to better one of the aspects of the food system that we were interested in. I personally was driven to apply because it gave me the opportunity to make a direct change in the food system, which I’ve been interested in since I was a freshman Environmental Science major and realized how destructive conventional agriculture is.

Q: What does it mean to be a Food Fellow? What are your day-to-day duties?

A: So my position as a Fellow has a couple different aspects. As a Fellow, I am expected to have completed 300 hours of work for a Cincinnati organization by the end of the school year, which I will summarize into a tangible “product” and present to the Food Policy Council. My organization is the Ohio Valley Food Connection. It’s a company that is essentially an “online farmer’s market.” It picks up the produce from small-scale, local and organic farms to distribute to stores, households, and restaurants in the Cincinnati area devoted to sourcing ingredients locally. It has contributed largely to the Cincinnati food hub, something that the Institute definitely wants to tap into, but also something we can learn from to make our own more regional food hub. Additionally, the five Fellows and our supervisor meet once a month as a little check in.

So, the actual duties of being a Fellow are pretty easy to complete, and the program, therefore, is absolutely what you make of it. For my project, I knew I wanted to help out the Institute for Food here at Miami in some way. Because they are in need of expanding their customer base, especially since they are tripling the acreage harvested this year, I was asked to contribute to developing their market. Through my partnership organization (the OVFC) where I am considered an intern, I help with deliveries, processing and grant writing. Not only will I sell the Institute’s food to this larger scale distributor, but my first-hand experience of food hub operations will lend valuable insight to the Institute for Food as they develop their market.

Q: You took the Food Studies course with Dr. Shaffer last spring. What made you want to sign up for the class and how do you think it has impacted your personal outlook on food?

A: I had wanted to get involved in some sort of sustainable farming program, and had been looking into WWOOFing or volunteering at a nearby farm for a couple months when I received the application to apply to the Food Studies Workshop. Because you had to apply for the class, I knew that it would be full of motivated and dedicated individuals and was so excited to be accepted.

Having taken the class, I now prioritize my personal choices surrounding food differently. I am lucky enough to have affordable access to fresh fruits and vegetables when so many others do not, so I make sure to be eating them! When grocery shopping, I make sure to buy at least organic when it comes to the Dirty Dozen, and to spend 50 more cents on a local pepper. When eating out, local restaurants are the pick instead of chains. The most important thing the class makes you realize is that little personal changes make a difference. Each dollar you spend on food is a vote for what you find important. “Voting” local is a vote for the local economy, sustainability and, more often than not, cleaner eating.

Q: How has your involvement with food studies impacted your academic career? What do you hope to do in your future?

A: The Food Studies course, I honestly tell everyone, changed my life. I remember being in tears for a majority of the days we met. Many times I didn’t realize the gravity of the bee decline, soil degradation, etc., or was ignorant to how many Americans go to bed malnourished or obese because they don’t have access to fresh, healthy food. But more often than not, I was in tears because I felt so full and driven and inspired by the people involved in the course. Guest lecturers made it an incredibly interdisciplinary class; every issue of the broken food system was brought to light: the production, the politics, the social justice issues, the economics… AND we transformed an acre of an old historic farm into a vibrant green haven of herbs and veggies! Contributing to the Institute for Food has been the most empowering experience of my academic career, and I plan to continue creating change by serving in the Peace Corps as an environmental/agricultural volunteer following graduation. We’ll see where the wind takes me after that! My career goals are currently on rotation as a farmer, a professor, an agricultural researcher and an agro-forester. I’ve got time to figure it out, but it will definitely involve Food Studies because of the Institute for Food.