University of Vermont

Food Systems Symposium Cultivates Collaboration

Several CALS Profs. Work with Other Schools, Colleges

People sitting at a table talking
Representatives from Green Mountain College, Vermont Technical College and Vermont Law School discuss opportunities for collaboration on food systems research. (Photo: Sally McCay)

Philosophy professor Tyler Doggett had the timing of a stand-up comic during his presentation – "The Ethics of Eating: Why Transdisciplinarity Is Important" –  at the third annual Food Systems Symposium on Oct. 31 in the Silver Maple Ballroom at the University of Vermont's Davis Center.

As philosophers are wont to do, he made his points Socratically, by asking audience members how they would react to a series of progressively thorny ethical dilemmas.

“There's a girl drowning in a puddle outside the Davis Center,” he began, gazing innocently at the audience. "Should you save her?" Of course, a woman near the front replied. “What if the puddle was very deep?” he added. Still yes. “What if it was burning hot, like lava,” he elaborated impishly. A nodding affirmative. “If it paralyzed you from the waist down?” Yes, again. “Is there any cost you would not pay?” he asked the impressively altruistic audience member with a smile, after pausing for effect.

Doggett's drift, in part, was to unpack an unspoken assumption behind an Economist cover story that had caught his attention titled “Feeding the World.” Unexamined by the magazine, Doggett pointed out, was the question of whether we should feed the world, especially when the many and varied costs of such an endeavor were taken into account.

“Everyone thinks you should save the child if there’s no cost,” he said, returning to his example. “It becomes significantly less plausible if you jack the cost up.”

But his real point was about the need for transdisciplinarity in addressing problems, including those related to the food system.

“Philosophy has nothing to say about what the costs are, but a lot to say about whether or not you should pay them,” he said. “Philosophy is important, but it’s not enough.” For example, an agro-economist, like Doggett’s fellow faculty member Ernesto Mendez, might be a good partner in integrating the “should” and “how” elements of the Economist cover story.

Such transdisciplinary coalitions of the willing –  where to find them, how to build them, how to make them work – were the theme of the day at the symposium, titled “The Cultivation of Collaboration: Increasing Our Impact on the Food System.”

“That’s OK”

Partnerships can evolve almost serendipitously, said John Barlow, assistant professor of animal science, who spoke about a new transdisciplinary project he participates in that addresses artisanal cheesemakers’ ability to minimize food safety risks and understand consumer needs. The project's six-member team includes Catherine Donnelly in nutrition and food science, an expert in foodborne pathogens; Jane Hill in engineering, an environmental engineer who focuses on microbial activity; and David Conner, an agricultural economist in the department of community development and applied economics.

Barlow met Donnelly through normal channels – both are faculty members in animal, nutrition and food sciences graduate program and colleagues in UVM's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. But he met Conner at a new faculty oriention and Hill through the Vermont Center for Immunology and Infectious Diseases (COBRE).

“Some of it was dumb luck and random chance,” Barlow said. “That’s OK. Another way to look at that is you’re watching and thinking about what’s going on, and identifying potential opportunities for future use.”

Power of partnering

Another presentation given by Linda Berlin, director of UVM’s Center for Sustainable Agriculture, was all about the power of partnering. Her project addresses how better to serve so called “food deserts” – places where people, often of low-income, have limited access to grocery stores and limited transportation, and so are "food insecure" in a variety of ways. Her research is part of a large USDA grant involving several schools, including UVM. 

The goal of the grant is to improve access to healthy food for underserved populations by better understanding what a regional food system means and how it works. The project encompasses nine communities in the Northeast, including Essex County in Vermont where it focuses on two independent grocery stores.

Ultimate transdisciplinarity

In the last presentation of the day, Amy Trubek, associate professor of nutrition and food sciences, gave an overview on the new food systems masters degree program. It is one of the most transdisciplinary programs on campus. 

Thirty faculty members affiliated with the program are doing many kinds of food systems research, she said, from the work Jane Kolidinsky, chair of community development and applied economics, is doing on obesity; to work by Chris Koliba, director of the master's in public administration program, on food systems policy. Students can work with any faculty member in the program, which is both an opportunity and, given their large number, a challenge. Discussions are under way, she said, to improve ways for faculty and graduate students to find one another.

The symposium also included a panel of representatives from Green Mountain College, Vermont Technical College and Vermont Law School on opportunities for cross-institutional collaboration. The symposium's keynote speaker, Wouter Van Hoven, who was to speak about African food security, was stranded in Boston by Hurricane Sandy. Diane Imrie, director of food services at Fletcher Allen Health Care, took his place. 

Douglas Lantagne, dean of UVM Extension and interim director of the Food Systems Spire, said he was very happy with the symposium, which was attended by about 100 people, but he is eager to do more. “When you get people together to network, great things come out of it,” he said. “I have to figure out how to do that more frequently, not just at the Food Summit and the Food Symposium. That’s what I’m going to be working on – more frequency and less logistical planning.”