Professor plants lessons from his past to grow a more sustainable food system
By Kate H. Elliott
Josh Gruver lives at the intersection of boundless adventure and practical pursuits.
“Listen, it hurts a little, having grown up in such a physical-close-to-the-earth environment. We built our house in the mountains, cut wood for heat and grew our own food. That way of life is part of me, but it is no more, and I feel it,” said Gruver, who since 2010, has taught courses in Natural Resources and Environmental Management at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana.
His life and work reflect that inner tension between gritty, against-the-grain work and sensible living. Graduate work challenged him, but not in ways he anticipated. Windowless biochemistry labs drove him to the Peace Corps, where—among the tribes of Papua New Guinea—he discovered a way to blend his passionate and practical natures.
“Papua New Guinea changed everything,” Gruver said. “I wrote my then-girlfriend, now wife, Adrienne, 15-20 page letters each week and wrote stacks of notebooks about the sociocultural, economic and biophysical dimensions that inform the human-natural resources dynamically. There, I found my next path, to pursue academia as a way to dig into real-world projects yet make a living and grow a family.”
Research that inspires action
Here at Ball State, Gruver adapts the types of local, sustainable management practices he observed in the Pacific into meaningful work in East Central Indiana. His most recent endeavor: A three-year, grant-funded project to assess the region’s food-scape and develop a strategy to increase economic development among producers. The project is equally focused on enhancing residents’ awareness of and access to local, affordable food and products.
“With a team of volunteers, students, and colleagues, we developed Hoosier Roots, a food hub partnership to nourish and strengthen our community through the robust exchange of fresh and affordable local food,” said Gruver, who also has received grants to develop forest management plans, assess the soil quality of area farms, and promote land conservation in East Central Indiana. “This is critical work, as we strive to support area farmers while combating food insecurity and increasing the overall health of our community.”
Project to support a resilient local food system
In Delaware County, one in four people are food insecure and more than 75 percent of Muncie Public School students qualify for free or reduced lunch. Between 2007-12, the county lost 49 small-scale farms, which Gruver said, are integral to a resilient, productive local food system.
“East Central Indiana gets about 40 inches of precipitation every year, we have good soils, plenty of sun and a long tradition of farming,” Gruver said. “So why not take advantage of this rich environment rather than sourcing from places like California’s central valley, where they struggle with drought among other things. Building a locally driven, food-forward community makes sense and tastes good.”
Despite these and other disadvantages, the Indiana State Department of Agriculture identified Muncie as an “emerging region” capable of supporting a food hub, defined as a centrally located facility with a business management structure that facilitates the aggregation, storage, processing, distribution, and/or marketing of regionally produced food products.
Hoosier Roots is a multi-faceted operation that combines a central facility for producers to store and sell crops with mobile food trucks to deliver fresh, local produce throughout the city. The approach—which ensures more stability (than, say, weekend markets) for producers and more consistent, reliable access for consumers—is ambitious. But, Gruver said, our community is “hungry for better.”
“People want to feed their families with quality, affordable produce and goods, and producers are eager to better connect with the community. We just need to work on education and access to shift the culture from how it’s been done to how it could be,” said Gruver, who has partnered with nonprofit, Farmished, to support the endeavor. “It will happen, and it will happen because our community is coming together to support this vital legacy of farming in Indiana.”
Investing in Muncie’s deep roots
Even though he’s digging in and planting change, Gruver occasionally feels the tug to “flee the everyday,” but life, similar to our food culture, is in constant tension for balance.
“I’ll probably always have a small part of me that wants to break away and go live in a remote village on 50 cents a day,” he added. “But, I have found purpose in Muncie, and we make compromises—in what we eat and how we live. Some days, you’ll sit down for a locally-sourced, engaging meal. Other days, it’s a pouch of Aldi guacamole and chips.”
Meaningful change won’t happen overnight, he added, but the father of two remains hopeful and patient that progress will come for his adopted home. And who knows, maybe he’ll get those hands dirty again after all.
Spicy Grilled Beef Salad (neua nam take – Laos, Northeast Thailand)
- 1 lb. boneless beef sirloin steak, approximately ¾-inch thick.
- 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- ½ cup beef or chicken broth
- 3 Tablespoon fresh lime juice
- 2 Tablespoon Thai fish sauce
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 1 teaspoon roasted rice powder (optional)
- 1/3 cup thinly sliced shallots, separated into rings
- 4 scallions, trimmed, sliced lengthwise in half, and cut into ½-inch lengths
- 2 bird or serrano chilies, minced
- ½ cup mint leaves
Accompaniments: Pick two to three
- 1 small cabbage, cored, cut into wedges and separated into leaves
- 8-10 leaves tender leaf of Bibb lettuce
- 4-6 leaves napa cabbage, cut crosswise into 1- to 2-inch lengths and blanched in boiling water for 1 minute
- 5- or 6-yard-long beans, trimmed, cut into 2-inch lengths
- 1 European cucumbers, cut into 1/4–inch slices
- 2 or 3 scallions, trimmed and sliced lengthwise in half
Directions: Prepare a grill or preheat the broiler. Rub the meat with the black pepper If grilling, place the meal 3-4 inches above the coals or flame. If broiling, place the broiler pan about 3 inches below element. Grill or broil until rare, 2-3 minutes per side. Very thinly slice the meat across the grain.
In a medium saucepan, mix the broth, lime juice, fish sauce, and sugar together and bring to a boil over high heat. Toss in the rice powder and meat and quickly stir to coat the meat. Immediately remove from the heat and transfer the mat and dressing to a large bowl (you must be quick so as not to overcook the beef). Add the shallots, scallions, chilies, and mint and toss gently. Let stand while you arrange your choice of accompaniments on a platter.
Mound the salad on a plate and pour the extra dressing over. Serve with the platter of accompaniments and plenty of jasmine or sticky rice. Serves 4-6 with rice.