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“Students have not only read Pollan’s book, they’ve lived it”

Following the lead of such projects as Yale Sustainable Food Project and inspired in no small measure by the popularity of such books as Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, sustainable food has become an increasingly hot topic at college campuses around the country. Over this past summer and semester I have been involved in a collaborative project with two biology professors, Betsey Dyer and Deborah Cato, and over 30 First Year Seminar students to educate ourselves and the broader Wheaton College community about food and sustainability.

We concluded our semester earlier this month with a sustainable banquet using food which we ourselves harvested, got from local farmers’ markets, supplemented with Wise kosher organic chickens, and cooked – inspired by the “perfect meal” at the end of Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma, which was the required summer reading for all first year Wheaton students. The students from my seminar, “The Rituals of Dinner,” having studied dinner rituals ranging from Plato’s Symposium to the Passover Seder, the meals in Genesis, Leviticus, and the Gospel of Luke to Babette’s Feast and Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party, designed the ceremony for our sustainable harvest banquet. For me personally, it was a way in which my Jewish foodie and environmentalist commitments moved me into increasingly broader circles of connection with other people and with nature. The whole project was an intensely Jewish experience for me, even though I was doing it primarily in a non-Jewish context. The project itself was featured in the Winter 2008 edition of our alumnae/i magazine, the Wheaton Quarterly and you can read the full text of the article after the jump here:

Food for Thought
By Randell Kennedy and Sandy Coleman

Early one September morning, long before many students were even thinking about breakfast, eight first-year students, biology professor Betsey Dyer and Instructor of Biology Deborah Cato were up at 5:30 a.m. to harvest food from Moose Hill Community Farm a few miles from Wheaton College.

Spread out in rows of waist-high greenery, they picked cherry tomatoes and green beans until they filled several buckets and their pants legs were wet with morning dew. They worked for hours to gather food to distribute to local families and to preserve for an end-of-the-semester First-Year Seminar dinner. And they still had a full day of classes awaiting them. Yet, they didn’t seem to mind.

A good lesson can have that effect.

As part of curriculum designed around the assigned summer reading of The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan, First-Year Seminar students learned to get in touch with the natural source of their food, which-despite how easy it is to forget in a highly packaged world-does not grow on grocery store shelves.

Wheaton traditionally assigns summer reading. But this academic year, faculty members have helped students take the assignment further than it ever has been before, deepening the learning experience — from the classroom to local forests and gardens, even to the kitchen of the Presidents’ House. The approach fits in perfectly with Wheaton’s emphasis on approaching subjects from many different perspectives.

Alison Mehlhorn ’11 said the harvesting brought the book to life for her. “I really enjoyed the harvesting. It was work; we got a little sweaty. But it was definitely a lot of fun, and the little orange tomatoes tasted so sweet,” she said. “It made me think about sustainable produce, and I would definitely participate in an experience such as this again.”

The central focus of the wildly popular Omnivore’s Dilemma — understanding where our food comes from and the impact it has on everything from personal health to the global environment — was incorporated into the curriculum of several First-Year Seminar courses. Students were required to write essays in response to the book.

Charlotte Meehan, assistant professor of English and playwright-in-residence, asked her students to write a dramatic scene based on their feelings about the book. One of the best was a scene that had Pollan and his family in a McDonald’s of the future in which meals are identified only by the objectionable ingredients that most people have supersized at some point.

During orientation, more than 400 freshmen packed Cole Memorial Chapel for a two-hour symposium on the book that featured a panel discussion led by three professors and three students. (Dyer even shucked an ear of corn to prove that she knows more than just a little about farms, having grown up on one.) During a provocative question-and-answer session, some students agreed with the principles of the book, saying it changed their way of eating. Some pointed out the impracticality of being so selective about eating while on a college campus. Others questioned whether those of limited economic means can afford to eat organic foods.

In October, several students baked bread with professional chef Jesse Ziff Cool and made apple dumplings with son Jonah Cool ’04 for 60 guests hosted by President Ronald Crutcher and Betty Neal Crutcher. Dyer, Cato and Associate Professor of Religion Jonathan Brumberg-Kraus in early summer created a campus garden near Balfour-Hood Center that students tended.

Students foraged for food on and around campus, picked wild grapes and made grape jelly. They plucked apples from trees on campus and made applesauce and dried apples. They also gathered acorns to make acorn flour and harvest muffins.
And on their own, many began several social networking groups on Facebook to discuss the concepts in Pollan’s book.

Dyer, Cato and Brumberg-Kraus organized the work at the community farm in Sharon, Mass., created the Balfour-Hood garden and arranged a sustainable banquet as part of their three First-Year Seminars, making it a creative interdisciplinary collaboration between two biologists and a religion professor.

“The three of us, over many lunches in the Faculty Dining Room, decided we wanted to work together to create opportunities for us and our students to turn the theory of Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma into practice,” said Brumberg-Kraus.

It worked. All the different approaches to the topic made it easier to understand what the author was saying, said Sarah Bertrand ’11. “Talking about it with the whole freshman class during orientation brought up a lot of points and opinions.”

She especially gained a lot from the harvesting at the sustained agriculture farm in Sharon. “It took patience to finish picking and to repeatedly do it. It feels time-consuming to pick one tomato or bean at a time if we are used to going to a grocery store and buying produce prepackaged and gathered, little effort required. But the experience reminded me that someone is picking the food we buy at the grocery store off plants too, just like we did, and that food one way or another depends on the earth too. In short, it made me take the food less for granted.”

Mathematics professor and Associate Provost Bill Goldbloom Bloch assigned the summer reading. “The Omnivore’s Dilemma explores questions to which everyone can relate,” he said. “What to have for dinner and the choices that go into food selection are both timely and thought provoking in part because we live in a country where the array of food choices seems overwhelming for many of us.”

Bloch notes that the book has united many talented faculty members who also happen to be “foodies” and represents Wheaton’s own special take on the “locavore” food movement that is raising awareness and enlightening people about local food and sustainability in communities coast to coast.

Although Wheaton has been assigning summer reading for incoming students for more than 25 years, Bloch says the book represents one of the most interdisciplinary reading assignments he has seen. “Its focus includes science, global sustainability and the humanities.” It sparked input from students even before they arrived on campus in Blackboard discussions and e-mail exchanges inquiring about the college’s food choices.

Bloch says that there was “a big wave of interest and changes made to food choices on campus” during the 1970s, and that he anticipates a new debate to begin as a result of the required reading.

Brumberg-Kraus, who teaches a popular First-Year Seminar on food and ritual, initially suggested The Omnivore’s Dilemma.

Dyer also enthusiastically pushed for the book. “It made perfect sense to me, and the book serves the purpose of connecting the classroom experience with understanding the natural world, sustainable agriculture, local food and our relationship to our environment.”

Cato points out that the fact that Wheaton owns a share of the nine-acre Sharon community farm embodies many of the ideas that Pollan presented in his book. “The food is grown organically and members have access to local foods that weren’t shipped halfway across the world using many gallons of carbon-based fuel.”

In December, the students will share in a harvest feast featuring all the local foods they have gathered throughout the semester (canned and frozen by Dyer, Cato and Brumberg-Kraus), as well as meat and eggs from Dyer’s family farm in Rehoboth, Mass. Brumberg-Kraus’s students designed rituals for the final banquet inspired by Pollan’s sustainable banquet at the end of his book.

“So students have not only read Pollan’s book, they’ve lived it,” said Cato. “They know exactly where this food has come from and have worked to get it to the table.”

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4 Responses to ““Students have not only read Pollan’s book, they’ve lived it””

  1. Leah Koenig Says:

    This made me long to be in college again – great article and thanks for providing photos too. One question, why did you pick Wise Kosher Organic Chickens?

  2. Jonathan Brumberg-Kraus Says:

    Good question, Leah. Other options we considered were to have a cow slaughtered from my colleague Betsey Dyer’s local family farm (whose cows by the way, supplied the fertilizer for our small campus garden), but there was a scheduling problem, and it wouldn’t have been kosher, so I wouldn’t have been able to eat it. Betsey also suggested venison hunted by a colleague’s husband, but what we could get would have been only a token amount, and likewise, would not have been kosher. Though I have to say, I thought about eating the meat anyway, since I didn’t want to set myself apart from the group whose identity based on a shared commitment to mindful sustainable eating we had worked so hard together to forge.

    To be inclusive I suggested kosher chicken and sought fellow JCarrot contributor Rabbi Shmuel’s advice on getting someone to schecht some local chickens. R. Shmuel suggested that bringing one person in from out of town to kosher slaughter some chickens might leave a greater carbon footprint than buying kosher organic chickens in bulk from a local distributor – hence Wise kosher organic chickens. Though we made sure that there were vegetarian and vegan options at the dinner (my other faculty colleague Deb Cato is vegetarian, as were a small number of the students), at the time we wanted to engage in the ecological problematic of sustainable meat. In hindsight, we decided the next time we do it, we will do a vegetarian meal. It’s not a bad lesson for meat eaters to learn that they don’t always have to eat meat!

    I was very happy with all the discussions that making these decisions required, since that was in fact the whole point of doing a hyper-conscious intentional sustainable meal. The ethical issues of inclusiveness, local vs. industrial, vegetarian vs. meat, local conventional vs. non-local organic, cultural dietary constraints (like kashrut) vs. food decisions made solely on ecological or bio-medical nutritional grounds were all raised in the process of organizing, planning, and sharing the meal. Also, in moving to more sustainable eating practices, I like the suggestions of Jessie Cool and the Yale Sustainable Food project to make food purchasing decisions based on tiered preferences, e.g., 1st tier: RI/Southeast MA ecologically-grown; regional organic organic; local conventional small scale; 2nd tier: local conventional (medium scale), US organic (small scale), local conventional l(large scale); tier 3: US organic (medium scale – e.g., Wise Kosher organic chickens?), etc.,etc.

    The Yale Sustainable Food project web site has a great chart for their food purchasing choices: http://www.yale.edu/sustainabl.....asing.html

    One other big issue raised by this meal, these decisions, and the banquet in the Omnivore’s Dilemma is can one eat like this for every meal? Or is it more of a once or twice a year exemplary meal like the Passover seder (Pollan calls his a “secular seder”), whose hyper-conscious ritual mode of paying attention to food origins will plant a seed of awareness in the way we conduct our less demanding ordinary, every day meals?

    And for me, with my Jewish cultural bias, it’s not Shabbos or yontif (and I really wanted this banquet to feel like yontif), unless there’s chicken and challah (I baked whole wheat challot for the event). It was hard enough to make it festive without serving wine or good local micro-brews, since nearly all the students were under legal age. As the talmud saya, ayn simchah bli yayin – “no festivity without wine!

  3. Leah Koenig Says:

    I had a feeling there was a lot of thought and consideration that went into that decision. I’m glad that you were able to find a way to create an inclusive meal, in addition to a sustainable one.

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