Food For Thought

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

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.

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  1. Very much wish I could have been there and am pleased to see Middlebury thinking about this. Having unraveled several serious family health problems, we’ve learned how proper food is critical to avoiding disease (and keeping health care costs down).

    It has been dismal to learn about how the food industry’s practices promote disease, and frustrating to see much of the medical community turn a blind eye to the role of nutrition as a cornerstone for health. Profit seems to be a big driver dictating what we eat – little numbers on spreadsheets rule! Amazing also is how recently we have lost many food customs, like fermented and sprouted foods and eating all of the animal, which provided critical nutrients

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    that one can’t find in most modern meals.

    A liberal arts view of this is welcome, where anthropology, biology, biochemistry (what are people designed to eat?),environmental science, economics, political science, sociology and psychology can be used to examine how we can eat wisely and enjoy a better quality of life. Critical thinking, communication and leadership skills will be needed to make a dent in this vast and perplexing problem. I hope Middlebury takes this challenge on.

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  2. Then again, not eating “the animal” at all can be an important consideration (certainly for the animal). At the above-mentioned discussion, Professor Young referenced a study in the scientific journal Nature showing that a shift to plant-based diets will be essential in order to feed the Earth’s human population. Factoring in the methane production of ungulates (and grass-fed cattle belch much more methane than their unfortunate factory-farmed brethren), the related UN reports of the dire climate impacts of worldwide livestock production, the overwhelming destruction of other species’ habitat for grazing and feed production, and the degenerative human health impacts of meat-based diets, a case can be made that leaving animals off the dinner plate is better for all–human and

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  3. Seeing the damage done to the human body and analyzing the lab results for a family member who was a committed vegan for 5 years has caused our family to be far less romantic about totally plant based diets. Having learned the hard way, we now have more respect for the lipids, amino acids, and vitamins the human body needs from a diet that has at least some animal component. We have also dealt with serious food allergies (corn, wheat, eggs and dairy proeducts), which are on the rise across the country – up to 45% of the population is intolerant of at least one food. Much of this is due to current mass agricultural and food processing practices. Health

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    problems caused by poor nutrition are breaking our country economically – obesity, diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and mental illness can all be traced to the chemicals our body runs on, which we get from food. Any discussion of a solution should incorporate health – what should people eat to be healthy and how can we build sustainable food systems to deliver it? Having seen the video, I was disappointed not to see any mention of biochemistry or anthropolgy, where many of these answers lie. This is a very complex problem, it deserves a cross-disciplinary scientific approach.

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  4. As someone who has built his career in the food industry, with a focus on food justice issues in underserved communities, I think this is a tremendous idea for Middlebury. I run a nonprofit food and nutrition program for those struggling with critical illnesses in Eastern Massachusetts, which also offers nutrition education, food service job training, local foods programs, and school nutrition. We’ve provided 4.5 million free meals over hte past 20 years. I’d be happy to consider Midd students for internships, as we’ve done with Midd externs in the past.

  5. What a fabulous plan — my best wishes for its success! I have forwarded the article to a few food/ag people and organizations in West Marin (where the family farms and ranches are in Marin county, just north of San Francisco), who may be interested in future interns. (A local community college has begun a food studies program here.)

    I am program director at the only radio station in Marin County; a non-profit community station, on which we have programs covering food and ag issues, local to global.

    Lyons Filmer

  6. Your article is inspiring, thank you.
    Living the vegan lifestyle is to be commended particularly from the viewpoint of the animals. There are also the many environmental issues that crop up and my family have taken to avoiding leather products completely in favour of natural sustainable cork fabric, and it helps some of the Iberian wild life too.

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