University of Vermont

The Honors College

Summer 2009 - Faculty Seminar

I Eat, Therefore I Am

Summer 2009 Faculty Seminar

In August of 2008, at the concluding event of a successful Faculty Seminar on Transportation and Health, Dean Rizvi and President Fogel had a conversation about ideas for the next summer's seminar. Perhaps partly in response to the excellent meal that he had just shared with the participants of the seminar, President Fogel suggested that we might think along the lines of food. He had been excited by a growing transdisciplinary interest and expertise on campus around the idea of food-from growing it, to distributing it, to processing it, to preparing it, to eating it, to educating ourselves and others about it, to attitudes about it - and he imagined a diverse group of faculty coming together the next summer to talk about what has come to be known as "food systems" thinking. From August 17-19, 2009, that suggestion became a reality, as a group of 20 UVM faculty from a wide range of disciplines across the University - animal science, information systems, plant biology, mathematics, geography, philosophy, classics, just to name a few - met in an Honors College Faculty Seminar facilitated by Professors Amy Trubek, from Nutrition and Food Sciences, and Chris Koliba, from Community Development and Applied Economics.

Summer 2009 Faculty Seminar

The title of one of Professor Trubek's courses in CALS might well have been the title of the seminar: From Farm to Table: Our Contemporary Food System. And it wasn't simply that the participants studied the various ways in which food makes its way from farm to table; they enacted that very journey (a point that was made quite memorably by HCOL Associate Dean Lisa Schnell when she returned to the HCOL offices at the end of the second day of the seminar having spent the afternoon gleaning root vegetables in the Intervale: she noted, as did Patty and Abu, that she was not accustomed to getting dirty in quite that way at work - which is not to say she didn't enjoy it!). Day One, however, had everyone inside UHN's Multi-Purpose Room, studying and evaluating both the muffins that were offered for breakfast and, in response to a film clip from Ang Lee's "Eat, Drink, Man, Woman," the way that food is understood by each participant from within their own discipline. These discussions then lead into a group project in which faculty, working in groups of five, attempted to design or describe a working food system with an eye to sustainability. The point of the exercise was for the faculty to have some non-theoretical experience of the immense complexity of food systems before beginning the afternoon discussions of some of the seminar's reading.

Summer 2009 Faculty Seminar

The complexity of food systems thinking and practice was most dramatically demonstrated, however, on Day Two, when the seminar participants embarked on a series of case studies. The first of those case studies involved the New York City Public Schools lunch program and a visit by Jorge Collazo, the Executive Chef of NYC Public Schools. The case study was organized around two related questions: 1) how to procure and prepare healthy food to feed over a million children a day and 2) how to convince them to eat it. Collazo, a passionate proponent for healthy eating, but someone with his feet firmly on the ground as far as kids and food and a very limited budget goes, impressed everyone with his never-say-die attitude toward what, by all accounts, is a remarkably complex problem. Change happens slowly, but change can happen, and with someone like Collazo at the helm, it does. As he explained it, when he first came to the NYCPS, "every piece of chicken and fish was breaded, or fried, or had some kind of coating on it." Now, not only do his kitchens not contain fryers, but he's developed daily school menus that are flexible enough to accommodate the varying food preferences of NYC's population. A chicken day, for instance, could mean roast chicken with a Dominican tomato-based sauce in one part of the city, but might become roast chicken with some herbs and a vegetable elsewhere.

Summer 2009 Faculty Seminar

"From New York to Vermont" became the theme for the rest of the day, as the faculty learned both from Megan Camp of Shelburne Farms about the Farm to School program in this state, and then travelled down to Burlington's Intervale to study a successful and innovative model of rural/urban economic development that links farmers and consumers. Theory became practice as the participants split up into groups either to glean produce in the Intervale for the Food Shelf, or to pick berries at one of the Intervale's independently-run organic farms (for the next day's dessert), or to prepare lunch in one of the food labs in Terrill for the group's Day Three lunch.

It would be disingenuous to say that Day Three was not characterized, at least in part, by the anticipation of two fabulous meals: the lunch prepared by the faculty group, and then dinner at Englesby, hosted by President Fogel and Provost Knodell, that featured local ingredients - from artisan cheeses, to local vegetables, to the lamb provided by one of the faculty participants (Mark Usher of the Classics Department, who with his wife Caroline, has a working farm in Shoreham, VT). But two tremendously interesting and important discussions took place before and around those meals. The first, a presentation by Vern Grubinger of UVM Extension that gave an overview of innovations in Vermont's food system, proved a point that had been floating in the air from the first day - Vermont may be small, but it does not lack for innovation nor for influence. If the nation's eating habits change toward a more responsible attitude in the growing and processing and distribution of food, it will partly be because Vermont lead the way. Likewise, the conversations that took place around the day's second question of what can happen at UVM with food systems teaching, research, and outreach, made it clear that as UVM moves forward in the development of graduate programs in Food Systems, we will be a leader in a field that is becoming more and more important to the planet's health and sustainability. It was an inspiring note with which to end a very rich three days. And those meals - amazing.

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Last modified September 30 2009 02:08 PM