University of Vermont

University Communications

Food Fight

Release Date: 04-15-2009

Author: Lee Ann Cox
Phone: 802/656-1107 Fax: (802) 656-3203

Student Kate Turcotte

Local eggs and cream went into the dessert Kate Turcotte's team made for last week's Battle of the Campus Chefs. "It's hard to have a local food contest in April," she concedes. "I don't think anyone took on the rutabaga." (Photo: Sally McCay)

Move over Michael Pollan. Last summer I wrote about the journalist and sustainability advocate and his talks with local farmers, consumers and academics working to create healthier, safer, smaller-scale, economically viable ways of feeding our country. But the recent Vermont Food Summit, an ambitious week of events that explored ideas from culture to climate, land to labor, was entirely student-driven. The inspiration, the fund-raising, the event organization was the work of Kate Turcotte, a seemingly tireless senior majoring in ecological agriculture.

We meet in Henderson's Café the first day of the summit and I'm relieved I've brought my own coffee mug. She laughs, explaining that she always seems to forget hers when she has meetings on sustainability. "I have to go uncaffeinated," Turcotte says. But she isn't dogmatic: She turns her passion into action and hopes that events like this will capture the attention of peers who don't think as much about what they eat, as well as how many people actually go hungry.

"I want people to see it's an event just sitting down to a meal and thinking about where your food comes from," says Turcotte. "It's something that we're all a part of so how do we interact with it?"

She's a little breathless after running back from one of the first activities, a meeting with the manager of Burlington's 500-person share Intervale community farm, attended largely by students who run UVM's organic Common Ground CSA, an educational enterprise that grows farm-fresh produce for 40 subscribers in the campus community. In a couple hours she'll switch hats for one of the big, fun events, the Battle of the Campus Chefs, in which 11 professionals, each teamed with a student group, compete before a panel of judges and a crowd numbering 250.

I watch — and taste — as chefs explain their creation and the panel offers its critique. This is both an exuberant celebration of food and a fundraiser for Campus Kitchens, a volunteer organization at UVM and campuses across the country that put students to work fighting hunger in their communities. Turcotte was a co-founder of the chapter at UVM, the team she's competing with tonight.

"Campus Kitchens wants to win," she says of their almond cake with chocolate ganache and raspberry sauce. "We're bringing our A-game." (The team from STAR (Students for True Animal Rights) won with a dessert wonton paired with a julienned fruit salad, mimicking the appearance of a savory dish.)

Ground work

That rich cake is among my favorite dishes of the competition, but it's clear talking to Turcotte that fanciful pastries are not her real interest. If you think this new generation lacks a work ethic, try meeting Turcotte and the residents of Slade Hall, the environmental co-op where she's an RA. Meet UVM's young farmers and the other student groups that joined together in this summit.

I feel a little sheepish, in fact, sitting at my laptop reading over notes from my conversation with Turcotte. In June when she graduates Turcotte will start her third season at Shelburne Farms working as a cheesemaker; she was originally hired to haul milk from the dairy to the cheese room.

"It's the perfect combination of the chemistry and the art and culture — and it's a good physical workout," Turcotte says. "I think that with desk jobs I would look busy and at the end of the day my stack would still be really high. With cheesemaking you have to finish, you have to put the cheese in the press before you leave. It's hard work but I like the reward every single day of making 700 pounds of cheese. I get it."

Turcotte's not alone at least in her interest; among the food summit activities that require registration, the ones that involve artisanal cheese fill up first. But what surprises her is what happens at the smaller, less promoted events like the bring-your-own lunch "eat-ins," casual get-togethers with a guest speaker.

"I was late because of a class — I do go to class — and the room was packed," she says. "People were sitting there having this really engaging conversation. It just moved me."

I attend lunch the next day, forced inside a second time due to rain, and the small room was full, students on chairs, on the floor. Ernesto Mendez, assistant professor of agroecology and environmental studies, is the invited expert. He's come with questions for discussion.

"Try to step out of what's comfortable," Mendez says. "A lot of people here support local food, but think more critically; we have to think internationally. Who drinks coffee here? Coffee isn't local. I like to embrace complexity."

And again Turcotte's event is launched, the conversation infused with ideas about empowering farmers, conscious consumption, conscious cooking. A student objects to the language of "consumers" versus "people."

Food anthropologist Amy Trubek, assistant professor of nutrition and food sciences, calls Turcotte passionate and intense, focus and organized as she tries to make sense of the big picture of food. But Trubek sees along with Turcotte a groundswell of students engaged in conversations around food systems. "(They're) all so impressive," she says. "I feel like, okay, the torch can now be passed. This is where the energy is right now."