Along Local Roads

The Food for Thought program has led Kenyon students to ideas, experiences, and relationships that go far beyond the use of Knox County produce in the dining halls.

To understand how things came together for Liz Lewis at Kenyon, you have to appreciate the meaning and pleasure to be found in cleaning barns, giving eye drops to goats, and sitting in a farmhouse basement on a rainy day, talking and pondering with Kate Helt, the farm wife, while you sift popcorn kernels, shaking off the last of the cob dust.

Until the fall of her junior year, Lewis had felt that something was missing. It was more than the student sense of floating in abstractions. She didn't like being "transient, with no relevance to the place I'm in." She wanted to feel connected--to the land and farms surrounding Gambier, to people other than professors and students, to neighbors, tangible work, settled community.

So, that fall she added to her schedule a course called "Sustainable Agriculture," which took her out to Kate and Eric Helt's organic farm for five hours a week--ninety-two acres of pasture, pond, and gardens, a five-minute drive from campus but a world away in rhythm and chore. Reading the articles they gave her, she harvested a new set of questions, about industrial agriculture and federal farm policy and the fragile balance sheets of small farms, about land use and land loss, and above all about food and farming. But, mostly, she learned the work, and she worked and talked alongside Kate and Eric.

Working a farm whose mainstay was grass-fed beef and lamb, she redefined her stance as a vegetarian. "I call myself 'the flexible vegetarian' now," she says, smiling. The question of meat per se, she came to believe, is less important than where it's from, what went into it, and how the animals were treated: the connections. Also, if you're invited to dinner by the people who have shared their livelihood with you, you partake: the meal isn't mere food, it's part of the relationship. The meat is a connection in that sense, too.

What Lewis liked best at the Helts' farm was the doing and the being. "I felt like I was really contributing, giving back," she says, "whether it was gathering wood or cleaning out a barn. Kate and Eric treated me like just another person who lives in the county. They showed me that I really could do something."

And she began doing something on campus. By the time she graduated last spring, Lewis had emerged as one of the leaders in a growing circle of Kenyon students who, along with professors from several fields, have taken up food, and the outward-rippling issues related to food, as a focal point for both study and activism.

The umbrella for many of these projects is Food for Thought, a College program which has gotten attention mainly for its efforts to bring locally grown and processed food into the dining halls. Kenyon has been recognized as a national leader in this trend, earning mention in the New York Times and elsewhere in the press.

But to Liz Lewis and the others, Gund Commons burgers made with Knox County beef are significant because they figure in a much larger menu, part intellectual, part social.

That menu includes students fanning out across Knox County as researchers. It includes faculty summer workshops that have yielded new perspectives in coursework. It also includes farm tours, films, and convivial local-food brunches, all organized by a student group that Liz Lewis joined, called PEAS, for People Endorsing Agrarian Sustainability.

More ambitiously, it includes a "community food assessment," in which students are gathering information on farms, processors, markets, and consumer attitudes. The ultimate goal is to create a sustainable "food system" in the region--a socioeconomic infrastructure of sorts that will provide fresher, healthier food for consumers while giving an economic boost to farmers, who will then have more incentive to keep their land green rather than sell out to developers.

As the local-food movement has surged across the country--"Forget Organic, Eat Local," proclaimed a Time magazine cover story last spring--the Kenyon initiatives have blossomed. On a campus that sometimes sees itself as isolated, food is leading outward along many roads.

With Food for Thought, all roads lead at some point through the ceaselessly creative, abundantly organized, cheerfully persistent mind of Howard Sacks. Sacks, who conceived the program, has been a faculty member since 1975 and is currently serving as senior advisor to the president. He describes himself as "a backyard sociologist," who cultivates the habit of working where he lives, finding large questions in local subjects.

That perspective led to the creation of "Fieldwork: Rural Life," a seminar in which he trains students in oral-history and documentary techniques, immerses them in county news, introduces them to his continually expanding pool of local contacts, and sends them out on projects. Since 1993-94, his students have translated their research into a series of booklets, newspaper articles, radio programs, and museum-quality exhibits, as a way of giving back to the community and stimulating public dialogue.

Given the county's rural character, it was natural that farming would emerge as a focus. Sacks and his students began interviewing local farmers and inviting them to campus. Over several years, their findings took shape as the "Family Farm Project," which produced an array of exhibits and booklets while winning statewide awards. The idea, Sacks says, was to "put the culture back in agriculture" by examining local farm life through history, social relationships, aesthetics, and spirituality.

Meanwhile, public officials in Knox County--and Kenyon officials as well--had been growing concerned by accelerating growth. Farmland and open space were giving way at an alarming rate to shopping centers and housing developments. The county faced a predicament: everybody wanted to preserve the countryside, but few had a taste for stricter land-use controls or for taxes to fund expensive propositions like the purchase of development rights.

The tenets underpinning Food for Thought are rooted in this confluence of academic interests and community concerns. Sacks articulates them in simplified form, as follows:

The rural character of Knox County depends on family farms. Farmers mostly want to keep farming; they stop because they can't make a living.

So one of the best ways to preserve open space and rural communities is to help farmers succeed. Create outlets for consumers to buy local. Make it worthwhile for farmers to grow foods for local consumption, not just corn and soybeans for a volatile global market. Open channels through which local artisans can sell "value-added" products like jams, breads, and canned goods.

Above all: understand that food is more than food. "With every food choice we make," says Sacks, "we're engaging in a civic act." Food that comes from up the road rather than across the continent is not only likely to be fresher, tastier, and healthier. It hasn't used up as much fossil fuel, or added as much to global warming, in making the trip to market. In buying it, you support local farmers--and you might even get to know them as people, and come to know more about what went into your dinner. And, supporting them, you keep money in the local economy. Food is about bonds. About relationships.

Following this philosophy, Kenyon began buying local foods for its dining halls in 2004. The College liked the idea of serving as a test case, hoping ultimately to convince other local institutions, like schools and nursing homes, to join in. Sacks formed a broadly representative Local Food Council to work toward the food system he envisioned. In the spring of 2005, Kenyon received a $250,000 grant from the McGregor Fund of Detroit, Michigan, to support academic activities and public programs related to Food for Thought.

That June, the College took center stage in the emerging local-food movement as it hosted the second national "farm to cafeteria" conference. An air of celebration filled the sun-spangled campus. In the classrooms where the workshops were held, however, the mood was more sober. The logistics of making a local-food system work, even on a small scale, are daunting.

Daunting, and complicated. If local food is about relationships, the logistics of buying it for a college dining service can feel like the stumbling entanglements of strangers at a barn dance. Nobody knows the steps, or everybody knows different steps, with the result that the fun and fellowship come with a few collisions.

Melody Monroe, the resident director for AVI Foodsystems, Kenyon's food service, is used to dancing with just a few predictable partners. The traditional way to do business is to pick meals, check off items on a sheet provided by a giant distribution company, and make a phone call. Invoices are processed through corporate headquarters. The food arrives, in familiar packages. The cooks prepare it, according to set recipes. The vats are set out in the servery line. The students wolf it down, and grumble.

The dance is getting more intricate.

Monroe smiles and sighs when she recalls the success that Kenyon finally achieved last winter in fashioning a network that brings local beef and pork to campus, after more than a year of uneven progress. "I've learned more about pigs and cows than I ever thought I'd want to," she says, chuckling.

She buys the beef, for example, from Fran and Bruce Conard, a farm couple in Martinsburg, about fifteen miles from Gambier. Careful managers who grow most of their own feed, the Conards "have a passion for the cattle," as Fran puts it. They raise a superior animal, with well-marbled but not excessively fatty meat--"our cows are finished, but not over-finished," says Fran--and Kenyon pays them a premium over the going market price.

The arrangement involves buying not packages, but whole animals. So there's a slaughterhouse in the dance, E.R. Boliantz Packing Company in Ashland, Ohio.

And there's a processor, too, Carl Rittberger Sr., Inc., a family company in Zanesville. Andy Rittberger, the current president and the grandson of the founder, is in constant contact with Monroe about the College's needs and how many animals it will take to fill them. At the plant, set on a back road surrounded by the Rittberger family farms, quarters of the Conards' beef are brought into what Rittberger calls "the Kenyon room" and turned into chuck rolls, brisket, top and bottom rounds, hamburger patties, cubes for stew, strips for stir fry.

The process has forced AVI to make adjustments, from paying bills within days rather than weeks (as mandated with livestock sales) to learning new cooking procedures. Rittberger's plant, for instance, turns out hams that are better than typical commercial offerings because they're cured without injecting extra water. But the first time AVI cooked them, they dried out. "We called Andy," recalls Monroe, "and said, 'You need to come and help us.' He showed us how to cook them at the best temperature and time."

Because AVI is buying whole cows, it has to figure out what to do with the higher-quality cuts--like boneless ribeye, strip loin, and filet mignon--that it doesn't normally serve in the dining hall. Rittberger can sometimes sell them to high-end meat shops, but the demand for those cuts is highest during "steak season" in the summer, just when the College's orders drop off. When the College is buying cows again (about four per week during the school year), steak season is over and it's harder to find buyers for the quality cuts.

The new process is time-consuming and expensive. But it's nothing compared to the logistical challenges of finding fresh local fruit and vegetables on the scale required by Kenyon. "When I talk about tomatoes, I'm talking about 200 pounds a day," says Monroe. "When I talk about lettuce, it's 120 heads per meal. Potatoes, 300 pounds per meal. When a farmer is growing a crop, he can't say, 'We'll do 200 pounds for this day.' They're talking about acres."

They're also making plans months in advance, worrying about far more than what Kenyon's future needs might be. The difficulty of ensuring a dependable supply of produce is complicated by fluctuations in the weather, in demand, and in prices, as well as by farmers' reluctance to commit to a new program. And then there's the inescapable fact that the harvest season overlaps only slightly with the academic year. How is Kenyon going to serve local green beans in February?

The man assigned to answer these questions is John Marsh, a gray-bearded jack of many trades who embraces problems with a mixture of confidence, self-effacing humor, and skepticism lightened by an irrepressibly sunny outlook. A member of the Kenyon Class of 1976, Marsh dropped out at the end of his junior year "to figure out who I was and see the world." Several careers later, he returned to Gambier and bought a house with some acreage. He plunged into the local food initiative--and he finished his degree, graduating in 2006 (just a week before his original classmates returned for their thirtieth reunion).

Employed by the College through the McGregor Fund grant, Marsh works closely with most of the twenty central Ohio farmers and businesses supplying AVI and scouts relentlessly for new sources. He's a regular buyer for Kenyon at the Owl Creek Auction, a nearby outlet for many Amish farmers. He and his wife have also started a small organic operation themselves.

The main hope for solving the produce challenge, says Marsh, is "extending the season" by buying vegetables at harvest time and flash-freezing them.The new Peirce Hall complex will have a flash-freezing unit along with storage freezers for just this purpose. (See "Freeze it Fresh," insert.) In addition, the College has signed a lease with New Hope Industries, a nonprofit organization that provides work for developmentally disabled adults in a spacious warehouse-like building in Mount Vernon. The building has a large commercial kitchen, and the plan is to buy equipment and make the facility into a regional center for freezing, canning, and storing local foods.

Conceivably, such a center could provide the capacity that both producers and institutional buyers need to support a viable local food system. Several other Ohio colleges have expressed interest in using the New Hope building together with Kenyon.

In the meantime, the farmers involved in Food for Thought say they enjoy working with the College. It's not that Kenyon's purchases account for a very large part of their income, but they can imagine the possibilities for growth. Moreover, they admire the commitment of people like John Marsh, Howard Sacks, and Melody Monroe.

Bruce and Fran Conard, who have shown students around their farm and come to campus for talks and picnics, like the contact. They take satisfaction in seeing students begin to grasp the complexities of a farm operation, and in changing the students' notion of what a feedlot must be. They're also proud to hear the praise they've gotten for their beef.

Bruce says: "This is a way of educating without being a teacher."

But is it a Kenyon education?

How do local-food brunches and flash-frozen green beans fit with Shakespeare and thermodynamics?

One answer lies with the projects that students have conducted, and not just through Sacks's seminar. Last spring at the Helts' farm, for example, six students working with a small Kenyon grant, and under the guidance of chemical-labs director Dudley Thomas, learned how to convert waste cooking oil into biodiesel fuel--theory into practice. Now the Helts run a car, a furnace, and two tractors on waste oil from the Middle Ground Café, the Village Inn, and the Gambier Grill.

Over the summer, Liz Lewis and a group of other students stayed in Gambier, pursuing food-related projects. Two were doing research under the guidance of Kenyon anthropologists. Three were working on organic farms (including two at John Marsh's place), earning certificates in ecological agriculture through the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association. One conducted a mini-farmer exercise, planting a garden at the Brown Family Environmental Center and selling the harvest at the farmers' market in downtown Mount Vernon. Another created a database to document precisely what local foods were being used in Kenyon's dining halls during the previous academic year.

Lewis herself took to the roads, interviewing a number of the producers supplying food to Kenyon. It was familiar territory, since she had been in Sacks's "Fieldwork" seminar during her senior year. Her task for the summer was to create dining-hall panels combining biographical information, a thematic angle, and, as she puts it, "a little bit of poetry," so that students consuming their meals would also get the context, the connections: food for thought.

While Lewis conducted interviews, an art major took photos for the panels. Another art major, meanwhile, roamed with all of the students, producing an experimental video documentary about this urge to connect through food.

The two anthropologists who directed summer research are Bruce Hardy and Kimmarie Murphy. Husband and wife, they take turns teaching a popular course called "Anthropology of Food," and they've often collaborated with students on research. One of their former students, Megan Maurer '07, studied consumer attitudes toward local food and presented her findings in a poster last March at the national conference of the Society for Applied Anthropology. Maurer went on to co-author a paper with the two professors.

"Food is a way to get at issues ranging from the environment, to the economic system, to questions of social justice," says Hardy. Because it's so fundamental and has such wide ramifications, food readily lends itself to the liberal-arts spirit of interdisciplinary inquiry.

Professors in American studies, art, chemistry, environmental studies, philosophy, and religion have incorporated food issues in various courses, thanks in part to the summer faculty workshops organized by Sacks. "This was an opportunity for true collegiality," says Associate Professor of Italian Patricia Richards, who loved the interchange with professors from other fields.

The workshops gave Richards fresh insights into her own scholarship (on Renaissance literature) and inspired her to create a new course, "Italian Cinema: Focus on Food." The culinary "lens," she says, revealed thematic subtleties that she had never fully appreciated before when teaching various films. (It was also great fun for the students to bond in a three-day cooking marathon in which they created the dish called timpano from the film Big Night.)

Sacks believes that Food for Thought promotes the liberal-arts ideal of educating the whole person because it fosters a sense of place, which he sees as a fundamental human need and source of emotional and intellectual richness. "Sense of place is essential to live a fulfilled life," he says. "It's absolutely integral to the liberal-arts mission.

And you have to learn it, just as you have to learn to write and think critically."

Sacks admires an essay called "The Rootless Professors," in which writer Eric Zencey argues that academia ignores "a key aspect of an integrated life" by dismissing local concerns as narrow and parochial. Professors, Zencey writes, should "acquire a kind of dual citizenship--in the world of ideas and scholarship, yes, but also in the very real world of watersheds and growing seasons . . . ."

It is this sense of citizenship, perhaps, that students have in mind when they talk about the life-changing experience of working on the Helts' farm, or on a similar farm run by Bruce and Lisa Rickard. At the Rickards' farm, students have seen the whole cycle: they've bottle-fed lambs, and they've gone along when lambs are taken to the livestock auction.

"We're the feet-on-the-ground part," says Bruce, who embraced farming after a career in information technology. Lisa was an IT expert, too. The Helts are second-career farmers as well: Eric has a Ph.D. in economics and was a health administrator; Kate was a business executive.

Like the Helts, the Rickards talk a good deal with the students about economic and political issues. But it's also vital, Bruce feels, "to know what it's like to have dirty fingernails and to be dog-tired at the end of the day, to lean on a shovel in the hot sun."

"That perspective is important," says Lisa, "so you're not just in your air-conditioned car driving along and the farm is a pretty picture out the window. An abstraction."

Liz Lewis makes a similar point as she muses on the liberal-arts lessons of her own season on the farm. "You can't just apply theory, you need to have experience," she says. The disconnect between concepts in a book and reality on the ground can apply to everything from simplistic notions of what "organic" or "vegetarian" may mean, to understandings of other cultures, to foreign policy.

The farm, and with it her other local-food activities, was a high point in Lewis's Kenyon education. It opened up ideas about sustainability, about being aware of surroundings, about the social implications of one's choices. It made her more comfortable speaking in public. It strengthened her resolve as a person who, when she sees a social problem, wants to act.

And it did something more, harder to articulate. What does farming have to do with her Kenyon education? Lewis pauses, thinking perhaps of the popcorn kernels and her conversations with Kate, that rhythm, that give and take.

Quietly but with conviction, she says: "It gives greater depth to life."

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