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Middlebury College Organic Garden: a Space to Learn and to Engage

Posted Nov 04 2009 10:03pm

by Dan Kane

 

I used to love trips to the grocery store with my parents as a child, sitting in the cart, marveling at the ridiculous number of options, aisle upon aisle of impeccably clean boxes, cans, bags of food. There’s something about the order and the consistency of a grocery store that’s both reassuring and unnerving. A grocery store seems so safe and so dependable, but how safe is that supply line that fills it shelves environmentally, socially? Where did that food come from, and whose hands did it pass through? Who might have been oppressed and what land might have been destroyed to make this food so cheap?

 

But the gulf of separation between the typical producer and typical consumer is so wide in America that food remains a mystery, an inexhaustible resource from somewhere in the Midwest/California that reappears just when we need it to.

 

Things didn’t feel much different, initially, when I started my freshman year at Middlebury College in Vermont, either, especially with our open dining policy in which you pay one upfront fee with tuition, there’s no points or cash system, and every meal is like an all-you-can-eat buffet. The food was good, even healthy, but it was still a mystery. Posters in the dining hall advertised how Dining Services strived to use local products and purchase from local distributors (which they do), but the posters couldn’t describe everything, every meal. I was doing my best to act sustainably in my day-to-day life, engage in activism, and keep myself informed, but was quickly finding out how hard that can be with food, especially when you’re not the one purchasing it. But with time I learned.

 

I learned about Weybridge House, the cooperative on campus, where I lived and cooked organic, locally-sourced food. I learned about the politics, geography, and energy impact of food and how these things help shape our world. I learned about the power of food to bring people together and on common ground. Food was changing how I thought about environmentalism and social justice. I had hitherto been confined to the environmental rhetoric of reducing CO2 emissions and wilderness conservation, but to consider the human world and its myriad issues through the lens of food was liberating for me.

 

By the end of my sophomore year, I gave up on the idea of becoming a doctor, which had driven me for a while, because this food thing was becoming too interesting, and instead of applying for laboratory internships applied to be a summer intern at the Middlebury College Organic Garden and got the job.

 

MCOG was started in 2002 by a group of students who saw a need for such a space at Middlebury. 

Though it took a lot of haggling, hard work, and started very small, the Middlebury garden has since rapidly expanded and become an invaluable asset to the college. Over the past six seasons, hundreds of student volunteers, faculty, and community members have come to the garden, which lies about a ¼ mile from campus, and worked or simply enjoyed the space for what it is. The majority of the garden’s produce is sold to the college’s dining halls and local restaurants; we have a non-competition policy with local farmers that we won’t sell at farmers’ markets or stores since our garden’s labor is subsidized by the college. But aside from production, we strive to keep the garden a beautiful and neutral ground in which anybody can learn about food and farming (literally all aspects) on their own terms but in a more fully, deeply engaged manner.

 

For me the summer internship was just that, an opportunity to learn and experience food in a more engaged manner than I ever had before. I lived my day-to-day life by the growing season, watching our garden evolve over the course of the summer and into the fall. I met everyone possible in Dining Services through selling produce to them and learned the difficulties they facebudget-wise, but how much they appreciate good produce. Contrary to previous conceptions, I learned that Dining Services was not an obstacle but an ally in our effort to get good food in the dining hall. And most importantly to me, I had the chance to meet local Vermont farmers and learn about their motivations, what problems they face, and how they face them.

 

No doubt the job was transforming. I want to farm now. I want to use these very hands-on skills I learned to promote environmental and social justice wherever I can. I want to be fully engaged in what we’re calling the “food revolution” all because of this space that the MCOG founders envisioned and invited me too.

 

Like my own experience, MCOG has been the starting point or inspiration for so many other student projects at Middlebury. One student interested in architecture designed and constructed an outdoor classroom at the garden site. Another group of students and a professor used GIS and Google maps to map where food consumed at 

Middlebury is produced, processed, and distributed. A group of students this year are organizing a symposium to discuss food from a variety of different perspectives, both global and local. Other students, including myself, have seen the potential for positive change food holds and gone to different conferences like Real Food, Slow Food Nation, and Terra Madre to learn and organize with other like-minded people (oddly enough, I ended up in one of the pictures in the last post about SFN…I’m the bearded one in sunglasses towards the end). And still others have gone on to work on farms or start farms of their own all over the place.


Though we still haven’t accomplished everything we may want to see at Middlebury, if there’s anything I’ve learned from gardening it’s that change takes time and you must be open to collaboration and innovation. Institutional bureaucracy can be stifling and frustrating, disinterest from students and administrators can be disheartening, but food has that unique power of bringing us together, of equalizing and calming the discourse, of truly setting the table for progress and discussion. At Middlebury, MCOG has certainly been key at setting that table.

 

by Dan Kane

 

I used to love trips to the grocery store with my parents as a child, sitting in the cart, marveling at the ridiculous number of options, aisle upon aisle of impeccably clean boxes, cans, bags of food. There’s something about the order and the consistency of a grocery store that’s both reassuring and unnerving. A grocery store seems so safe and so dependable, but how safe is that supply line that fills it shelves environmentally, socially? Where did that food come from, and whose hands did it pass through? Who might have been oppressed and what land might have been destroyed to make this food so cheap?

 

But the gulf of separation between the typical producer and typical consumer is so wide in America that food remains a mystery, an inexhaustible resource from somewhere in the Midwest/California that reappears just when we need it to.

 

Things didn’t feel much different, initially, when I started my freshman year at Middlebury College in Vermont, either, especially with our open dining policy in which you pay one upfront fee with tuition, there’s no points or cash system, and every meal is like an all-you-can-eat buffet. The food was good, even healthy, but it was still a mystery. Posters in the dining hall advertised how Dining Services strived to use local products and purchase from local distributors (which they do), but the posters couldn’t describe everything, every meal. I was doing my best to act sustainably in my day-to-day life, engage in activism, and keep myself informed, but was quickly finding out how hard that can be with food, especially when you’re not the one purchasing it. But with time I learned.

 

I learned about Weybridge House, the cooperative on campus, where I lived and cooked organic, locally-sourced food. I learned about the politics, geography, and energy impact of food and how these things help shape our world. I learned about the power of food to bring people together and on common ground. Food was changing how I thought about environmentalism and social justice. I had hitherto been confined to the environmental rhetoric of reducing CO2 emissions and wilderness conservation, but to consider the human world and its myriad issues through the lens of food was liberating for me.

 

By the end of my sophomore year, I gave up on the idea of becoming a doctor, which had driven me for a while, because this food thing was becoming too interesting, and instead of applying for laboratory internships applied to be a summer intern at the Middlebury College Organic Garden and got the job.

 

MCOG was started in 2002 by a group of students who saw a need for such a space at Middlebury. 

Though it took a lot of haggling, hard work, and started very small, the Middlebury garden has since rapidly expanded and become an invaluable asset to the college. Over the past six seasons, hundreds of student volunteers, faculty, and community members have come to the garden, which lies about a ¼ mile from campus, and worked or simply enjoyed the space for what it is. The majority of the garden’s produce is sold to the college’s dining halls and local restaurants; we have a non-competition policy with local farmers that we won’t sell at farmers’ markets or stores since our garden’s labor is subsidized by the college. But aside from production, we strive to keep the garden a beautiful and neutral ground in which anybody can learn about food and farming (literally all aspects) on their own terms but in a more fully, deeply engaged manner.

 

For me the summer internship was just that, an opportunity to learn and experience food in a more engaged manner than I ever had before. I lived my day-to-day life by the growing season, watching our garden evolve over the course of the summer and into the fall. I met everyone possible in Dining Services through selling produce to them and learned the difficulties they facebudget-wise, but how much they appreciate good produce. Contrary to previous conceptions, I learned that Dining Services was not an obstacle but an ally in our effort to get good food in the dining hall. And most importantly to me, I had the chance to meet local Vermont farmers and learn about their motivations, what problems they face, and how they face them.

 

No doubt the job was transforming. I want to farm now. I want to use these very hands-on skills I learned to promote environmental and social justice wherever I can. I want to be fully engaged in what we’re calling the “food revolution” all because of this space that the MCOG founders envisioned and invited me too.

 

Like my own experience, MCOG has been the starting point or inspiration for so many other student projects at Middlebury. One student interested in architecture designed and constructed an outdoor classroom at the garden site. Another group of students and a professor used GIS and Google maps to map where food consumed at 

Middlebury is produced, processed, and distributed. A group of students this year are organizing a symposium to discuss food from a variety of different perspectives, both global and local. Other students, including myself, have seen the potential for positive change food holds and gone to different conferences like Real Food, Slow Food Nation, and Terra Madre to learn and organize with other like-minded people (oddly enough, I ended up in one of the pictures in the last post about SFN…I’m the bearded one in sunglasses towards the end). And still others have gone on to work on farms or start farms of their own all over the place.


Though we still haven’t accomplished everything we may want to see at Middlebury, if there’s anything I’ve learned from gardening it’s that change takes time and you must be open to collaboration and innovation. Institutional bureaucracy can be stifling and frustrating, disinterest from students and administrators can be disheartening, but food has that unique power of bringing us together, of equalizing and calming the discourse, of truly setting the table for progress and discussion. At Middlebury, MCOG has certainly been key at setting that table.

 

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