Two UVM students are recipients of a prestigious scholarship from the James Beard Foundation National Scholars Program, which awards $20,000 scholarships to ten students across the United States. Alisha Utter is a doctoral student in Plant and Soil Scienceis developing a research project working with farmers while at the same time establishing her own farm. Olivia Peña is an incoming master’s student in the Food Systems Graduate Program, who plans to work in food and agriculture policy.
“The National Scholars Program seeks students of unusual ability, determination, and a passion for learning skills that will enable them to advance our mission,” says Diane Harris Brown, director of scholarships at the James Beard Foundation. The Foundation’s mission is “to celebrate, nurture, and honor chefs and other leaders making America's food culture more delicious, diverse, and sustainable for everyone.”
Peña, who was the first graduate of the Food Systems major in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences in May, is continuing at UVM this fall as an accelerated master’s student in the Food Systems Graduate Program. As an undergraduate, Peña published a piece in the Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development on the importance of diversity education in land grant universities. She has been an active member of the UVM Real Food Working Group for several years, which is working to increase sustainable purchasing in UVM Dining.
As a research assistant with the Climate Change, Agriculture, and Food Security program this summer, Peña is supporting research on post-harvest food loss and greenhouse gas emissions, as well as a GIS project to track per capita agricultural emissions by country. She hopes one day to work on food and agriculture policy, either through nonprofit advocacy or through working in politics. “My goal is to support rural economies to improve quality of life for rural, minority, and other marginalized populations,” she says. She is pursuing opportunities to work on the 2018 Farm Bill.
Utter earned a B.A. in Environmental Policy and Marine Science at the University of California, San Diego and moved to Vermont to participate in the UVM Farmer Training Program in 2014. The Program inspired her to pursue farming and a degree in Plant and Soil Science. Utter has worked in restaurants for over a decade and is currently in the process of establishing an organic perennial fruit farm with her partner in Grand Isle, VT. She says these experiences outside of academia have given her a valuable perspective on the food system and influenced her trajectory as a scholar.
“Farming and academia can be isolating, so working in restaurants and connecting with people over food has informed much of my work,” she says. “It all comes down to empathy and insight: we might wonder, ‘why are farmers not doing X, why are chefs not championing Y?’ My combined experiences in research, farming, and restaurants have provided me a better sense of the challenges and opportunities of regenerative food systems. For example, implementing produce safety practices on our farm and understanding restaurant expectations has enriched my perspective as a research assistant examining produce safety on small and medium-sized farms throughout New England.”
Utter is currently exploring potential dissertation projects related to historical crop varieties, beginning farmers, and farming techniques that do not rely on animal byproducts. In the meantime, she’s enjoying spending her Saturday mornings serving snow cones at her local farmers’ market using syrup made from fruit she harvests weekly at local farms. “The ice shaver is hand-cranked, so I like having conversations with people while they’re waiting,” she says. “I’ll dive into talking about the antioxidants in the fruit syrup, and the kid’s like, ‘just give me my snow cone, lady.’”
The James Beard Foundation is named in honor of James Beard, a renowned American chef, teacher, and cookbook author. The Foundation recognizes culinary and food systems leaders through annual awards. This past year, UVM faculty member Cathy Donnelly won an award for her book The Oxford Companion to Cheese. The Foundation’s scholarship program, which started as a means to elevate the culinary arts, has expanded to support students focusing on food policy, food security, climate change, and more. They now offer close to $700,000 in scholarships annually through a variety of programs.