College mulls new food studies program

 

MIDDLEBURY — An idea that started as a blog post last summer may become the newest field of study at Middlebury College.

Last summer, Amanda Warren and Ben Blackshear, students who currently head up the Middlebury College Organic Garden (MCOG), sat down to develop an unofficial program in Food and Agriculture Studies using courses already offered at the college. They posted the plan to their blog at middfood.com.

“We got a lot of response right away — we were taken off guard,” said Warren. “Everyone kept telling us that this was a very salient topic, that people wanted to talk about it.”

Now the school’s Environmental Council is also pushing for a food and agriculture-based course of study, and Bob Cluss, the college’s dean of curriculum, has so far held two meetings to gauge student interest. The first drew nearly 30 students, which Warren said is just a percentage of the students who have expressed an interest in the program to her.

“There’s clearly a lot of student interest,” said Cluss. “It’s been strong and seems to be growing.

And the Environmental Council is throwing some weight behind it, too, Cluss said.

Helen Young chairs the Environmental Council, which this year named food a major area of focus. Young, a botany professor, incorporates trips to the college garden into her introductory botany classes, and she said it’s a prime way to get students engaged with the subject.

“Everyone is interested in food, and plants make up such a large portion of our diet,” said Young. “(In class,) we spend a fair amount of time eating and talking about the plant matter we’re eating.”

And Young is not the only professor incorporating the study of food into her classes. As Warren and Blackshear found when they first blogged about a food and agriculture studies program, there are already food and agriculture-related courses spanning several disciplines — “The Anthropology of Food,” “Local Green Politics,” “Soils, Geology, and the Environment,” and “Literary Feasts: Representations of Food in Modern Narrative,” to name a few.

Young said the college’s environmental track record makes it a prime candidate for a more focused food studies program.

“It seems like the next natural area to focus on,” she said. “Students arriving at Middlebury are very interested in environmentalism and sustainability, and a lot of our impact on the environment is through the food we eat.”

That’s just one of the reasons that the great deal of student interest in a food studies program hasn’t come as a surprise — then there are organizations like the organic garden, which has a solid core of volunteers, and Dolci, a popular student-run restaurant on campus.

Last January, Warren was one of a group of students who team-taught a winter term class on food justice, bringing in speakers and doing readings and discussions on the topic of food access, farming and nutrition. Warren said she and the other students leading the course received nearly 50 applicants for the maximum 12 student slots.

But, said Cluss, it was the convergence of faculty and student interest that caught the administration’s attention.

“When students step up and faculty do, too, that’s always a good thing,” he said.

While the program in food and agriculture is far from being a done deal, Cluss was optimistic.

“There’s a lot of support in the administration for this — it’s clearly important,” he said.

ADMINISTRATIVE HURDLES

“I would say we’re looking at something that’s pretty interdisciplinary,” Cluss said. “Probably a minor at first.”

Though minors require less additional curriculum planning, Cluss said the challenge is making sure that there is a consistent and cohesive array of courses offered to fulfill the requirements of the minor.

“You can’t just lump courses together and call it a minor — there has to be a curricular thread,” said Cluss. “You ideally want to have a gateway course that all the students would take.”

Such a program would mean additional administrative planning and additional faculty and staff time, while each member of the faculty already has a responsibility to his or her current department. All of this, said Cluss, is what he will be looking at as the current push for a food studies program continues.

All those involved in the discussion acknowledge that the program would be unique among liberal arts curriculums — while there are many technical agriculture programs in the country, few colleges offer an interdisciplinary food studies program — or one that interests so many different people.

“It’s not one type of student who’s coming to these meetings,” said Warren. “It’s first-years, seniors, environmental studies majors, literature majors, history majors. That’s what’s really exciting for us.”

Warren said she and Blackshear are planning to submit a formal minor proposal to the college this spring, and she’s hoping to see an official minor established before she graduates in February of 2012.

“Ben and I are very excited,” she said. “We’ll write up a strong mission statement and see where it goes from there,”

Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at andreas@addisonindependent.com.


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