Food. It’s not just what’s for dinner (that is, if you’re one of the planet’s lucky ones)—it’s also a powerful learning tool. At an October 14 gathering during Fall Family Weekend, a panel of students, faculty, and parents in the food field discussed with a large audience how a proposed new food studies minor could enrich the liberal arts at Middlebury.
Moderator Pier LaFarge ’10.5, now a Washington D.C.-based climate analyst, asked those filling the Orchard Room at the Franklin Environmental Center at Hillcrest to consider how food creates connections. “It connects the problems of growing population and increasing pressure on resources; it also connects people with each other and with their landscape,” he said. LaFarge noted how Middlebury’s agrarian location and its commitment to projects such as local food procurement and the student-run organic farm made the study of food a natural fit. The panelists then amply illustrated his point.
Professor Helen J. Young, one of the faculty members shepherding the establishment of the new minor, emphasized that students had initiated and driven this interdisciplinary idea. Young, a botanist on the biology faculty, added that food-related course offerings could span anthropology, public policy, economics, biochemistry, literature, “and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.” She further explained that the minor would comprise five courses, among which an internship or research project would be essential.
English professor Daniel Brayton gave a sampling of food references in literary works, noting their subtle ability to denote social class. As a lifelong sailor, Brayton sees particular potential in teaching food studies through what he termed “greater Midd”—Middlebury’s additional sites, including its graduate school, the Monterey Institute for International Studies, located at one of the world’s great ocean ecosystems.
Two students spoke from personal experience about food’s potential to teach. Kate Strangfeld ’12 took inspiration from a J-term class on food justice in Vermont to help found Crossroads Café, a student-run restaurant in the former McCullough Juice Bar. “It’s been the biggest learning experience ever,” Strangfeld said. “I’ve seen how restaurants can affect health, culture, and the economy.” As for the value of running a restaurant while holding down a heavy liberal arts workload, she said, “I’m so happy I didn’t go to a big school with a nutrition major. Here I see food’s many impacts.”
For Janet Rodrigues ’12, helping build an organic garden at a South Bronx middle school showed how food can nourish children and their communities in the face of social inequalities. In planting and harvesting she, her three Middlebury classmates, and the school’s students and teachers had to handle issues such as soil quality and invading rats from an adjoining business.
“I never thought I’d be speaking on this kind of panel,” she said, commenting on food’s power to take someone in a new direction. Rodrigues and friends helped kids grow fresh vegetables they otherwise wouldn’t have had while offering them new ways to learn about plants and insects. It was also important, she noted, to reach kids through foods they enjoyed, that their families could afford, and that resonated with their cultures.
The two parent panelists drew from their own careers to offer insights on what kind of education is relevant in the business of food. Chris Granstrom ’74 (P’07, ’13) and his family turned from growing apples and strawberries to helping pioneer Vermont’s wine industry. Their Lincoln Peak Vineyard, just up Route 7 from Middlebury, has established an enviable reputation for fine wines via new, hardy grape cultivars. While Granstrom credited success in farming to a personal curriculum that includes “some construction, some wiring and plumbing, business planning and marketing,” he credited the liberal arts with being fertile ground for food careers. “A lot of the new, dynamic food businesses, farms or otherwise, are being started by liberal arts grads,” he said, adding that a study program should stay abreast of food-related issues and recognize positive case studies.
Echoing the fit between the liberal arts and food and agriculture enterprises, Ted Andrews (P’13) credited his formal education with bestowing an essential farming tool: “I learned how to learn,” he said. Andrews is the CEO of HerbCo, an organic herb farm in Duvall, Washington that will produce $50 million in sales this year. Throughout its growth, the company has continually innovated to maintain the safety and wholesomeness of its crops—part of the learning curve Andrews has mastered.
Granstrom and Andrews’s participation on the panel was part of Middlebury’s new “Parenting the Earth” series, initiated by the Franklin Environmental Center at Hillcrest. According to Dean of Environmental Affairs Nan Jenks-Jay, “Middlebury parents working in environmental and sustainability fields are invited to campus to share their knowledge and networks with students. Some of these connections have even generated internship opportunities.”
Based on the questions and comments that followed the panelists’ comments, it was clear that these two farmers were not the only parents in The Orchard convinced that food studies merited a place in the liberal arts. As a fitting final course to the discussion, everyone moved into the lobby for a lovely spread of local food.
Please note: While the food studies minor is still in development, it will be essential for each student to undertake an internship. Anyone who might be able to provide a Middlebury student with such an opportunity should contact Lisa Gates, Director, Center for Education in Action at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Stay tuned to MiddMag for more Fall Family Weekend coverage, including links to the President’s address to parents, as well as audio and video coverage of panels and discussions.