Panel Challenges the Future of Food Sector

By Jordan Seman

The College’s focus on local and sustainable food continues this month with “Eating Forward,” a campaign organized by Olivia French ’14 and Jake Nonweiler ’14. The series, which runs through October, features environmentalists in various areas of the American food industry, including farmers, activists, educators, entrepreneurs, and more.  On Thursday, Oct. 10, Eating Forward presented a panel discussion about sustainable food in a growing nation entitled “Feeding America.”

The panel featured four environmentalists in different areas of the food industry: local cider entrepreneur David Dolginow, College Food and Farm Educator Sophie Esser-Calvi ’03, grocer Jay Leshinski and chef Woody Danforth. The panelists offered a variety of perspectives about creating a sustainable food future in Vermont and in the U.S., emphasized the need for strong relationships in the industry and advocating for education to encourage the growth of sustainable food.

This series is a continuation of a dialogue that began on campus in January 2012 with student-run organization EatReal, which focuses on conscientious consumption among the student body and promotes cooperation with the administration towards a more sustainable food future.

“Our project is contributing to a conversation that has already been in the works,” French said. “Middlebury students care a lot about this issue; there are a lot of people talking about how to bring more local food to our dining halls.”

Throughout the Feeding American panel discussion, a large emphasis was placed on education and the fostering of relationships in order to encourage innovation and creativity in the food sector. The panelists focused on how to make food sustainability a community-wide engagement, both in Vermont and in the greater U.S.

“The food system in this country is broken; we really need to think about how our future is going to look given how many people we will have to feed in the coming years,” Esser-Calvi said. “In order for us to pursue a sustainable future, we need to educate strong leaders.”

“Sustainability is built on relationships,” Danforth added. “It is the ability to link the farm to the plate, which starts with education and an understanding about how to utilize and manipulate food to get to the end consumer.”

The panelists also specifically emphasized Vermont’s sustainable food future, placing the College in the larger context of the growing movement towards sustainable agriculture in the state. The Farm-to-Plate Initiative, a strategic plan to accelerate the development of Vermont’s Green Economy, has taken off since 2009, promoting access to local food and encouraging economic growth in Vermont’s food and farm sector.

Panelist David Dolginow addressed how a sustainable future in Vermont might look, emphasizing the need for more cooperative growing and marketing and for a diversification of products.

“We need to focus on the concept of a working landscape, and how to diversify products to make the food industry a more interesting area to go into as an entrepreneur,” he said. “The Champlain Valley could become the Napa Valley of hard cider; we have world-class soil and air for growing apples, but only a few regional scale growers as of now.”

Addressing how the College fits into the larger picture of food sustainability, the panelists advocated for larger-scale entrepreneurial farmers within Vermont so that institutional buyers, such as the University of Vermont and the College, will have more of an economic incentive to buy locally.

“As of now, only about 20 percent of our dining hall food is locally grown or processed, and that’s on a good day,” Nonweiler said. “There is a lot of demand being placed on our administration to increase local buying, but a lot of people don’t know what that would really entail. The goal of our series is to show people what ‘sustainable’ and ‘local’ mean for the producer, the seller, and the consumer.”

The Eating Forward series hopes to get the dialogue started by asking questions like “Are we willing to change our meal plan or increase the dining hall budget in order to eat more locally? Is our goal to support local farmers, stimulate the local economy, and protect the environment? Where does our campus fit into the bigger picture of the Farm-to-Table initiative in Vermont?”

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Panel Challenges the Future of Food Sector