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In Nebraska, students in Metropolitan Community College's culinary arts program work in a sustainable garden alongside students in the horticulture program. (More photos)
Photo: Metropolitan Community College
With growing numbers of consumers and restaurants seeking out locally produced specialty food items, community colleges are creating programs around the concept of sustainability in agriculture and the culinary arts.
“It’s definitely a growing trend,” said Stuart Rosenfeld of the Alliance for Sustainability, a network of 22 community colleges funded by the Ford Foundation. And it’s a trend that fits in with community colleges’ efforts to embrace green practices to make their colleges more sustainable.
At many colleges, sustainable agriculture programs are closely connected with culinary arts and entrepreneurship programs, Rosenfield said.
“There’s a growing realization about the potential economic opportunity in producing sustainable food,” he said.
At Metropolitan Community College (NCC) in Nebraska, for example, culinary students work in the campus garden, while students in a new program at the University of West Virginia at Parkersburg will be learning how to market the foods they produce.
Food is generally considered to be “sustainable,” according to Sustain: The Alliance for Better Food and Farming, if it is produced, processed and traded in a way that contributes to thriving local economies, protects the diversity of plants and animals, avoids damaging natural resources, and provides safe and healthy products.
Culinary and horticulture partners
The culinary and horticulture programs at MCC are in the same department and closely intertwined. Culinary students save produce waste, like carrot and onion peelings, to create compost for the horticulture department, said culinary coordinator Jen Valandra.
MCC has an aquaponics system creating a food loop, with nutrient-rich water from a fish tank full of tilapia circulating to fertilize salad greens and herbs, then flowing back into the tank.
AACC's SEED Center includes online resources for sustainable agriculture.
Culinary students learn how to cook the tilapia, as well as produce and herbs grown by horticulture students, in a student-run bistro and catering service. Horticulture students raise crops in a “hoop house,” a garden that can be closed up in the winter, creating a 10-month growing season. A patio herb garden showcases “edible landscaping.”
Some students are working on degrees in small-market farming with plans to specialize in such areas as orchard production, viticulture or small animal husbandry, Valandra said. Others want to start their own business producing specialty meats and sausages; cheese; honey; or raising small animals, such as ducks, squab or rabbits.
Culinary students take a “farm-to-table” class, which gives them a better understanding of where food comes from. While walking a classes through the garden, MCC’s executive chef and culinary instructor, Jo Anne Garvey recalled, one student boasted, “I planted every one of those leeks.”
A comprehensive experience
Instructors teach sustainability concepts by taking students to various types of farms, Valandra said. They visit giant feed lots, like a Cargill plant that processes 350 cattle an hour, and a farmer who switched from large industrial farming to raising lambs on a small operation. Taste tests help students recognize the benefit of grass-fed versus corn-fed beef.
Archived SEED webinar: Community colleges leading rural-based green economy initiatives (includes sustainable agriculture)
Rather than focus on organic practices, instructors emphasize the benefits of local production and humane animal-raising practices, Valandra said. Students also learn about the conventional food production industry, because that is what they will face on the job.
“They might prefer local, organic produce but they also need to know what to do with a huge box of unseasonal tomatoes,” she said.
There are a growing number of restaurants in Omaha focusing on sustainable food and green practices, and “a lot of faculty and staff are hoping to drive the culinary industry in that direction,” she said.
MCC invited locally minded chefs to campus for networking activities—using a speed-dating model—with students to help prepare them for culinary careers. In the summer, students set up a booth at a farmers market to host cooking demonstrations focusing on what’s available.
Kingsborough Community College (KCC) in Brooklyn exemplifies the trend in urban gardening. The college carved out space on its 70-acre campus about a year and a half ago to grow heirloom and standard tomatoes, peppers, herbs, kale and lettuce in raised beds. The crops are fed with composted kitchen waste from KCC’s culinary programs.
The gardens are part of KCC’s goals to incorporate sustainability into college operations with the aim of saving energy and reducing waste in landfills, said Thomas Smyth, director of the culinary arts program and academic director of the Center for Economic and Workforce Development.
The gardens are used by students working on associate degrees in culinary arts and students studying food and beverage in the travel and tourism department. They are also used by students taking sustainable gardening and related courses in KCC’s continuing education department.
“Both of the hospitality and culinary programs have a synergy around sustainable farming practices,” Smyth said. “Not every hotel can have a rooftop garden, but if you can purchase local and the customer sees a value in that, hopefully, that is a message that will come across.”
Some of the food produced is used in the culinary courses, with the leftovers going to KCC’s food bank, which serves students and community residents in need. The next step is to incorporate the gardening initiative into the college’s food services, including its cafeteria and catering operations, Smyth said.
West Virginia University at Parkersburg is launching two new programs this spring—diversified agriculture and culinary arts—with a focus on sustainability.
Cool Community Colleges: Creative Approaches to Economic Development by Stuart Rosenfeld provides an overview of arts-related economic development.
The agriculture program will emphasize hands-on experiential learning in plant and soil sciences, said program coordinator Rosa Guedes, who developed the courses after visiting local farmers and high schools and assessing their needs. One factor driving the establishment of the program is the need to encourage more local food production. Ninety percent of the food consumed in West Virginia is produced outside the state.
Guedes believes it’s important for the faculty in a diversified agriculture program to have “a worldview of sustainable agriculture and information that may not be available in textbooks.” She said diversified agriculture integrates aspects of many disciplines, including agro-ecology, sociology, entomology, weed science, pest management and agronomy, as well as political and economic analysis.
“It’s very important that students develop skills not only in food production but in how to sell the food they produce,” Guedes said, so students will be required to take a marketing course, as well as general courses in biology, chemistry and algebra.
Sustainability will be embedded in the agriculture courses. For example, a course on agricultural ecology, will cover nutrient cycling, a topic familiar to Guedes, who previously taught nutrient cycling in rainforest ecology at Federal Rural University of Pernambuco in Brazil.
The sustainable food program at Mesa Community College (MCC) in Arizona focuses on nutrition, but the goal is to expand it to include agriculture, said Maureen Zimmerman, a faculty member in the college's nutrition/dietetics and sustainable food systems program.
Most students are working on certificates in sustainable food systems, although MCC also offers an associate degree in that subject. For those who want to continue their education in sustainability, MCC is working on an articulation agreement with Arizona State University.
The typical student in MCC’s sustainability program already has a degree in another field and many want to start their own business, such as producing food at home, like granola or a mix, to sell to restaurants or at farmers markets. A course on food entrepreneurship is popular, as is a course on sustainable cooking, which generates compost for the community garden on campus.
“Students who work in the garden have learned about soil, Arizona’s microclimates and got some experience getting their hands dirty,” Zimmerman said.
The program also covers the industrial food system.
“We want to give students the scientific underpinnings so they can think through the issues around sustainability and understand the need to create a new system that can provide everyone with safe, affordable, local and nutrient-dense food,” Zimmerman said.
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