Foodworks gives college students inside look at local ag work

MIDDLEBURY — For those who call Addison County home, many of the systems that bring the food we eat to our plates unfold more or less in our backyards.
From milk produced at Monument Farms and sold at Shaw’s and Hannaford supermarkets to produce grown by students at the Middlebury College Knoll of Route 125, production of local food dictates the day-to-day routines of many of those around us.
At Middlebury College, a program run by a former student has for the past six years sought to provide students a chance to get to know local food systems a little better. The college’s Foodworks program pairs students with paid summer positions at an array of organizations involved in nearly every facet of local food production.
The wide variety of jobs available to those who qualify for the program includes administrative positions with the Vermont Department of Agriculture in Montpelier, farmhand work with Fisher Brothers Farms in Shelburne, and jobs preparing meals with Middlebury College dining services.
Sophie Esser Calvi, a 2003 Middlebury College graduate, works as the Foodworks director and associate director for Global Food & Farm Programs at the college. She said there are two things that unite the otherwise diverse group of students who participate in the program: a desire to learn more about the struggles and successes that play out in the food systems around them, and the simple love for food that drew her to get involved in the program in the first place.
“I love food as a medium because it can touch everything and every subject,” she said. “We can pick up an apple and talk about almost any subject from history to sociology to economics. I also love how food can bring us together to share a meal and stories … It is not only important for our survival but it can be a large part of our joy in life, especially when shared with others.”
In its six years of operation the program has fostered close relationships with local food organizations to which it sends its interns every summer.
Middlebury College rising junior Annie Blalock (pictured, right) is spending the summer working as an administrative assistant at the Vermont Agency of Agriculture in Montpelier, where one of her main duties has been compiling a database that she hopes will eventually include every farm in Vermont. The project is meant to help farmers learn how to best price their products in an often-confusing agricultural market where prices for meat and produce can be volatile.
“We’re trying to reach out to every producer to fill out this survey where they fill out questions about their past years’ production and their prices,” Blalock said. “This will all be put into a report, and it will be comparing prices at farmsteads and farmers markets to retail prices. The idea is to give farmers resources that will help them price their products competitively, so that they’re not over or underpricing them.”
Nora Peachin is a rising sophomore working as a local food access intern at the nonprofit organization Helping Overcome Poverty’s Effects (HOPE) in Middlebury, which operates a food shelf for residents in need. HOPE relies on donations from local farms as well as supermarkets.
Through her job, Peachin has learned how issues such as transportation access impede many Vermonters from getting the nutrition they need.
“We have buses, but even for with those it can be difficult for people to get around in such a rural state,” she said. “Making sure that everyone can access food from a transportation standpoint is really important and is a challenge many people in the area face every day.”
Blalock also said that her job has opened her eyes to many residents’ daily food challenges that she otherwise would have never seen during her day-to-day life at the college.
“When it comes to food insecurity, I think that learning about injustices that people in Vermont face that you’re not aware of when you’re on Middlebury’s campus is really important,” Blalock said. “This job has been a great way to experience that and learn about it.”
Isaac Ducker, a rising junior, originally planned to work full time as a farmhand this summer but changed his mind when he was admitted to the program and learned about an opportunity with Fischer Brothers Farms in Shelburne.
As an intern with Fisher Brothers, a berry-growing operation that also produces and sells berry ice cream through its Sisters of Anarchy brand, Ducker’s responsibilities span picking berries, writing newsletters, scooping ice cream and researching packaging methods for the farm’s frozen treats.
Ducker said that part of what drew him to the job was that in working with a smaller operation such as Fisher Brothers he would have a chance to make a real impact on the business’s success, an opportunity he may not have gotten elsewhere.
“As a college student, especially with summer internships, you don’t get a ton of experiences where you really feel like you’re working to help a business directly, and this is one of those experiences,” Ducker said.
Beyond simply learning about food systems in Addison County, many Foodworks jobs give interns opportunities to develop the business and administrative skills so many college students are eager to get — and they do so through more hands-on tasks than those that other jobs might call for.
“I think that the best part about these opportunities is that you realize that the things you need to learn can be learned in any size business,” Ducker said. “You’ll learn them more quickly and kind of with more attention to detail if you’re working hands-on with the business as opposed to in some office building for a big business that you don’t really know.”
The interns all live in the college’s food studies house on Weybridge Street, where a common love for food and wide-ranging daily experiences lead to vibrant conversations about how food shapes life in Addison County and greater Vermont.
“That they all live together is very important to our model because when they get home after a workday, cooking in the kitchen you’re all talking, asking what your day was like,” Esser Calvi said. “And all of a sudden you’re hearing things like I was working on this policy piece up in Montpelier, and another student was harvesting garlic scapes or grazing sheep. It all goes back to this love of sitting around a table sharing food, sharing conversation.”

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