College eyes ‘food studies’

MIDDLEBURY — When the official panel discussion on food and sustainable agriculture wrapped up on Oct. 14 at Middlebury College, the talking in the room was still in full swing.
“There are only one or two issues in the Middlebury community that can spark that kind of dialogue,” said Pier LaFarge, moderator of the panel and a recent alumnus of the Environmental Studies department at the college. “The hardest part of my job was to usher people out of the room. You know something is going right when you have to herd them toward the free organic food.”
Middlebury is working to develop an academic program around food and agriculture. While several colleges have programs in sustainable agriculture, Middlebury would be the first liberal arts college to implement one.
Though there is no “official” course of study on the topic at Middlebury yet, the energy is high. A student initiative led by undergraduates Amanda Warren and Ben Blackshear has bloomed into a curriculum proposal for a minor in food and agriculture, or FOAG for short. The proposal, submitted to the Curriculum Committee this month, outlines five core courses, an internship, and recommendations across departments from upper level French to chemistry and biology.
“Food is the center of everything,” said Dan Brayton, a Middlebury professor who teaches classes on environmental literature and who participated in the Oct. 14 panel. “I talked about fish, but the discussion really moved across topics.”  
The panel was a public display of a dialogue that’s been going on a long time on Middlebury campus. It featured two faculty members, a pair of students who have worked in sustainable food, alumni and parents.  The Hillcrest Environmental Center was filled to capacity.
“The idea was to get a broad range of perspectives,” LaFarge said. While at Middlebury, LaFarge served on the Environmental Council and helped to draft early proposals for a food studies program at Middlebury. Though the FOAG minor initially drew resistance from faculty and administrators, it may soon be an accepted course of study.
“It couldn’t be called a minor when they first proposed it because it doesn’t show up on a transcript,” said Helen Young, chair of the Biology Department and longtime faculty supporter of the FOAG program. Young advises the Middlebury College Organic Garden (now called the Organic Farm), and has worked with the Environmental Council for several years on the FOAG project.
“It’s unlikely that the minor will be in place next year,” Young said. “Maybe within a couple of years. In the meantime there’s nothing to keep students from taking the suggested courses and applying them to the minor when it’s approved.”
Young teaches Plant Biology, Evolution, Tropical Ecology and a winter-term course this year on the biology of food and cooking. Many of her classes fit seamlessly into the minor, linking hard biology and environmental thought.  
The curriculum model, based on the recently approved Global Health minor, is only one step in the process. The college may need to fill up to two full-time positions related to food studies. The first would replace Jay Leshinsky, long-time adviser to the college organic garden, who will retire next year. The curriculum proposal also suggests a full-time professor to teach two FOAG survey courses.
Even so, LaFarge believes that an academic approach to food is integral to Middlebury’s vision.
“Faculty and administration both want to maintain Middlebury’s long-held position at the head of the environmental movement,” he said. “The food studies program is a chance to engage with the environmental movement in a new way. This isn’t just the traditional academic approach to environmentalism, it’s participatory.”
More than most minors at Middlebury, FOAG would require dirty fingernails. Amanda Warren, who forwarded the first inklings of this project on the MiddFood blog, explained that the minor includes an internship in addition to academic coursework.
“There were parents at the panel who offered internships on their farms — a coffee plantation in Brazil and a guy with the largest herb supplier in America,” she said. “Students could do work on the organic farm, too.” 
Currently Middlebury College only offers credit for internships completed during winter term. Though food and agriculture are year-round disciplines, both Warren and Young suggested opening summer internships to Middlebury credit. And, while the internship is required, they made it clear that the program was academic, not vocational.
“We really want this to be a food studies program, not Organic Agriculture 101,” Warren said.
Though it may raise some eyebrows among diehard academics, the project is gathering energy as a new vision of liberal arts study.
“This is exactly the right time and the right place for the food studies minor to succeed,” Warren said. “The administration has been trying to push the envelope of what liberal arts means. Solar Decathlon is a good example. Just because liberal arts has always been one way doesn’t mean that it needs to stay that way.”
The buzz of interest at the recent panel discussion is only one measure of the FOAG project’s high regard.
“The energy is building,” Warren said. “The food studies minor began as Ben Blackshear and I talking over beers. Now it’s something where (Middlebury College President) Ron (Liebowitz) has asked me to his office to talk about it.”

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