Food for Thought

berriesIn The Omnivore’s Dilemma Michael Pollan refers to Lévi-Strauss’s concept of “food that’s good to think.” This idea, which helps Pollan frame his wide-ranging exploration of what people choose to eat, also speaks to the increasing emphasis on food and agriculture at Middlebury College. One factor here is, of course, that we are located in one of the most diverse and beautiful farming regions in New England. In addition, though, specific aspects of our curriculum and history bring the nationwide intIerest in topics such as local food and food justice into a particularly sharp focus.

One of these is the vigor of our interdisciplinary environmental studies major, the first in the world when it was established in 1965. Faculty and students seek to apply diverse disciplines when investigating both ecological challenges and principles of sustainability within dynamic systems. The topics of food and agriculture have become so central to environmental discourse, here and elsewhere, in part because they are equally pertinent to fields including chemistry, biology, public policy, economics, and literature.

The Middlebury College Organic Farm has been one delightful outgrowth of such a way of thinking. Cofounded 11 years ago by Jean Hamilton ’04 and Bennett Konesni ’04 when they were just starting out at the College, and with Jay Leshinsky serving as a wise mentor there during most of the intervening period, the farm has offered Middlebury students a site just far enough from the main campus to allow for reflection, as they weed and water, on the wholeness of their education. Classes in botany and dance have used the garden as their lab and studio, while seminars have often gathered there for discussions of nature writing and pastoral poetry.

Sophie Esser Calvi ’03, Middlebury’s new food and farm educator, was herself inspired by working on the Organic Farm as a Middlebury undergraduate. From such a vantage point, she sees a couple of even more recent initiatives—the FoodWorks summer internships and the commitment to hiring a faculty member in the area of food studies—as “the perfect marriage of agriculture and the liberal arts.”

FoodWorks is an ambitious program of paid internships for students interested in local food and sustainable development. It is worth noting that it was launched as a pilot program last year not in rural Vermont, but in a mid-sized city: Louisville, Kentucky. There, a cohort of students became immersed in an evolving urban food ecosystem, working with small farms,  food distributors, policymakers, and city restaurants; they became educated, while also educating others.

This summer, FoodWorks is again in full swing in Louisville, while also expanding to include a second site in Vermont. It was my privilege to speak to the 16 students here in New England and, via videolink, to the 10 interns in Kentucky when they convened at the beginning of June; I will do so again when they wrap up in early August.  I found these students to be an effervescent and highly motivated group. The program gains further energy from the fact that their individual projects in farming, local and statewide policy initiatives, distribution, and marketing are complemented by a carefully designed sequence of shared readings, field-trips, and speakers that incorporate their activities on the ground (and in the soil) into an ongoing discussion reminiscent of their Middlebury classes. And by existing in both rural and urban areas, the program exposes interns to diverse systems, problems, and solutions.

Elsewhere, enterprising students are devising solutions of their own to other local problems, such as food insecurity. A cohort of seven juniors (Jack Cookson, Eduardo Danino-Beck, Elias Gilman, Chris Kennedy, Oliver Mayers, Nathan Weil, and Harry Zieve-Cohen) are launching a nonprofit that will seek to bring healthy, nutritious food at an affordable cost to Vermont families in need. Modeled after a Chicago program, Middlebury Foods has met its fund-raising goals through gifts and a grant from Middlebury’s Center for Social Entrepreneurship and plans to begin operations this summer.

Food studies, similarly, is a work in progress. Whatever the disciplinary background of the first faculty member in this area may turn out to be, he or she will be called upon to help create a curriculum that is at once rigorous, sophisticated, and flexible. But an equally important role for this new program will be remembering to celebrate the opportunity for working and studying under the sky and to hold a place within our educational community for what Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini calls “the pleasures of the table.”

John Elder taught at the College and at the Bread Loaf School of English for nearly 40 years. He now holds the title of College Professor Emeritus. A thoughtful and sensitive writer, his books include Reading the Mountains of Home, The Frog Run, and Pilgrimage to Vallombrosa. With his wife, Rita, and two adult sons, John taps a sugarbush each spring and sells the resulting maple syrup. 

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