Environmentalists have always drawn their moral imperative from a duty to protect that which is common to us all: the air we breath, the water we drink, the land we share. While the fight to protect wilderness, develop renewable energy systems, save endangered species and curb global climate change remain hallmark causes for Earth Day to catalyze, a subject even more common has become the focus of current environmental thought: food. While consumer trends have increased demand for organic and local products, feuling a resurgent landscape of small farms, community gardens, CSAs and farmers markets, the so-called “food movement” is still a very new subject to academic thought. This fall, Bard College at Simon’s Rock, a liberal arts “early college” in the Berkshires, will bring the food movement to school with creation of the Center for Food Studies.
“Our students are interested in food because they’re interested in sustainability and the impact on the planet,” says Maryann Tebben, the new director of the center. In this way, the program’s focus will be a natural outgrowth of the questions and concerns that participating faculty and students are already addressing. Tebben herself is a teacher of French language and literature, who inevitably encountered the topic of French cuisine in her studies and offers a class on the subject. This fall, she’ll be publishing a book called Sauces: A Global History. Hers is only one of many angles that academics are now approaching the subject of food, and therein lies the growing necessity for an organized field of study.
“Provost Peter Laipson came to me in the fall and said, ‘There’s a lot going on in Berkshire County that has to do with food,’” she says. “We have a lot of farmers, a lot of people interested in food from the restaurant angle—foodies. So it seems like an opportune time for us to get involved as an academic institution.”
The department is not entirely unprecedented, with higher profile programs at UC Berkeley focusing on food policy and Michigan State centering on agricultural systems and technology. Simon’s Rock takes a liberal arts and service learning approach, aiming to provide a theoretical framework for study in the classroom before connecting students with research projects and internship opportunities in the Berkshire community. Coursework will range from the hard biological science of agriculture to the social science of land use and policy. According to the center’s mission statement, they “will advance our community’s knowledge of food as a cultural force and our responsibilities as stewards of a sustainable food system.” While not a degree-bearing program, the Center for Food Studies hopes to offer an academic certificate when classes get under way this fall.
This Saturday (April 19), the Center will have its official unveiling with the ThinkFOOD Conference, co-sponsored by the Nutrition Center in Pittsfield. There will be three panel discussions, previewing some of the center’s core concerns. The first will consider regional food culture as portrayed and discussed in the media. The second considers what role the food movement has in the academy and is offered as a networking opportunity for community members to help shape the program. The third addresses the challenge of bringing local food into the cafeterias and dining halls of schools and universities. “We’re all on board about this idea, but it’s hard in practice,” Tebben says.
This might well be the conflict that has driven the center’s creation in the first place. Rather than pioneering new ideas about food and food systems, Simon’s Rock and other similar institutions are simply beginning to formalize and organize the way the food movement addresses the topics of nutrition, agriculture and the environment. Not only does the program legitimize food as a topic of scholarly concern, as Tebben says, it lets students “get their hands dirty.”