Just food now; public opportunities and responsibilities


One of my previous posts described how the modern industrial food system is in “collapse.”  In this post, I offer some ideas on how town government, local colleges and community organizations can get involved to .…

“just grow food – and – grow food justly.”

The author and Amherst Farmers Market Manager and UMass grad, Sarah Berquist

While the USDA, the American Farm Bureau and national commodity groups like to talk about promoting local agriculture, most of their policies are more supportive of “big agriculture.”   If we are going to “grow food justly” we might want to look closer to home.  We need to start in our own backyards and neighborhoods and then work with town government, colleges and community organizations to strengthen the local food system.

This blog focuses on my experience working in my hometown, Amherst, Massachusetts.

Local Opportunities

One of the mantras from “big ag” is that you can’t feed the world with local food.  Well lets think again.  First, we need to ask what do we mean by local?  For a New Englander the answer may be obvious, as there is a strong sense of regional identity that stops at the Hudson River.  One of my favorite stories is of an 18th century tax collector from New York who tried to impose his authority over independent Vermonters.  Ethan Allen (of Green Mountain Boys fame) is reported to have shot him with buckshot (not fatally) and chased him away with the cry…the gods of the valley are not the gods of the hills.” Although today we clearly need to trade with those outside of our region, it would be good to know just how much food are able to grow for ourselves in New England.

Toward that end, the Amherst Agricultural and Conservation Commissions invited Dr. Brian Donahue, Professor of Environmental History at Brandeis University (and a local farmer himself), to speak to a group of local residents about what might be possible.  Professor Donahue shared his estimates of how much food could be realistically produced in New England.  He thought we could grow:

  • Almost all of our vegetables
  • Half of our fruit
  • All of our  dairy products
  • Most of our beef and lamb
  • Most of our pastured pork, poultry and eggs

The following 25-minute video clip from his presentation provides more detail:

Can we grow more food in New England? from John Gerber on Vimeo.

Professor Donahue said that although this was possible, it was by no means going to be easy.  If we want to grow more of our own food in New England, we have some work to do!

Local Responsibility

Ben Hewett’s book “The Town that Food Saved” tells the story of Hardwick, Vermont, a community that took responsibility for its own future.  While Amherst, MA may be a more cosmopolitan community, local food has an important place in our history and culture as well.  Our town emblem for example, is “the book and the plow”.   These symbols represent our respective commitment to higher education (we have 3 colleges in town) and farming (we are proud of our agricultural roots).  While this partnership is tested from time to time (as UMass faculty sometimes deride our history as a “cow college,” and farmers at times may laugh among themselves about the “eggheads” on campus), our success as a healthy community depends on mutual respect for both of these traditions.  This partnership is one of the strengths of our town and a foundation upon which we are trying to build a vibrant community-based food system.

To build a more vibrant local food system, town government, the colleges and community organizations need to take more responsibility.

Here are a few ideas to consider, based on a few of our experiences in Amherst:

Local government might:



Colleges and universities can help by:

Community organizations might:

As an example of a community-led project, a study commissioned by our neighboring town, Feed Northampton, proposes a public investment in food hubs that might provide communal food processing, packaging, cold storage and redistribution.  It might also include a slaughter facility, a community kitchen for processing vegetables, a maple sugar boiler, a cider press,  and a flour mill.  And residents of Sedgwick, Maine recently voted to adopt a Local Food and Self-Governance Ordinance, setting a precedent for other towns looking to preserve small-scale farming and food processing.  If we are going to have a more robust local agriculture, we need to take more responsibility for creating that vision ourselves.

I believe that we must work together to build more resilience into a food system that is dominated by global corporations, vulnerable to collapse in the industrial world, and already in collapse in many developing countries (as evidenced by recent unrest) by growing more food locally.

However if  your own town government, local organizations and colleges fail to provide leadership, it is up to “average” citizens to lead the way.  If we “start parade” the local leaders will gladly jump up in front and wave our “local foods”  flag!  My next blog will examine personal responsibility for helping to create a vibrant community-based food system and ask the question, “so how do I help?”


For more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now. And go here for more of my World.edu posts.  And for those of you from Amherst, please send me your favorite public initiatives to promote local food to add to my list for a future blog.

Education for sustainability; a holistic philosophy


My last blog announcing a new certificate in Sustainable Food and Farming at the University of Massachusetts resulted in lots of inquiries.  While most were about specific courses and requirements, some asked about the pedagogy and underlying philosophy of our new program.  This blog attempts to describe the thinking that went into development of the certificate program as well as our undergraduate Sustainable Food and Farming major.  I hope it is also relevant to the many new degree programs, courses and curricula emerging around the world focused on education for sustainability.

Should sustainability be part of a public education?

The next generation of students graduating from public universities will be faced with an unprecedented challenge to redesign nearly every major natural resource based system on the planet.  These women and men will inherit systems of industrial and technological growth that are simultaneously destroying or depleting much of nature and endangering human and non-human species, while offering the highest standard of living and rate of consumption ever known.  These modern systems of industrial and technological development must be re-imagined and re-created in ways that no longer rely on non-renewable resources, use natural resources at non-sustainable rates, or cause harm to people or the natural world.

Education for sustainability should prepare students to address these daunting challenges.   While university leaders often talk about education as “an engine of economic growth” and a means of creating jobs, a more complete understanding of how public universities serve the public good would include attention to common human interests such as: affordable, nutritionally adequate food; adequate and affordable clothing and shelter; a healthy, livable environment; a means to provide for one’s livelihood, personal growth and community health; accessible health care; and accessible educational opportunities.   Education for sustainability should address these basic human needs.

What are the attributes of an education for sustainability?

A widely accepted conceptual model presents sustainability as a quest toward three interrelated objectives: 1) environmental integrity; 2) economic vitality; and 3) social equity.

This model however sets up  three competing objectives in which economic priorities almost always win out over environmental and social objectives.  Recently university leaders have begun to talk about “environmental sustainability” (which might be considered progress).  But I believe we must learn to view this model in a more holistic way, using systems thinking tools that allow us to integrate all three objectives rather than trading one off against another.

Some academics particularly struggle to incorporate social equity into their thinking.  According to an April 2001 Science article about sustainability science, the university research community has generally ignored the social impact of their studies.   The authors of this article call for a new science that is different in “structure, methods and content” from the science of the past.  Specifically the new sustainability science will need to approach problems from a holistic perspective that:

  1. transcends spatial scales from economic globalization to local farming practices;
  2. accounts for temporal inertia of global affects such as atmospheric ozone depletion and the movement of toxins;
  3. deals with the functional complexity of interacting systems and subsystems; and
  4. recognizes and honors a wide range of divergent opinion within the scientific community and between science and the larger society.

We must be clear that the call for a more integrative approach including social objectives does not represent the abandonment of rational, objective thought, but the evolution of human thought toward holism or systems thinking.  According to Ervin Lazlo, this “macroshift” represents the necessary evolution from logos to holos thinking with a significant change in focus as described in this table:



Reductionist thinking




‘Head’ oriented

Separate from nature



Holistic thinking




Whole being (head, heart, body, spirit)

Connected with nature/ecological


Systems oriented

Education for sustainability goes beyond “mere knowledge”

Current undergraduate education focuses primarily on building knowledge within a specific academic discipline.  Education for sustainability on the other hand, requires a broad set of learning that integrates multiple disciplines with new practical skills and the evolution of personal and community wisdom.  Lacking wisdom, knowledge can be dangerous.  Human knowledge, for example, has built weapons capable of destroying everything we love.  Human knowledge has degraded ecosystems and created cycles of poverty and despair.  Knowledge “alone” cannot solve the problems that we have created.  To solve the problems of humanity, we must go beyond knowledge.  Today we need skills, knowledge AND wisdom (where wisdom is defined as the awareness of what has value in life).

Most university programs are grounded in a commitment to building instrumental knowledge, that is, knowledge about how the world works.  Instrumental knowledge is used to manipulate the environment, and while important, it must be balanced by communicative knowledge of values, ideas, feelings and cultural concepts such as justice, freedom, equality and love.  Communicative learning may rely on metaphors and analogies in addition to facts and data to unravel complex human and human-natural system relationships.  Learning tools such as decision cases, dialogue, service learning and story telling are core to communicative learning.  Lastly, while instrumental learning may thrive in hierarchical systems where the power of teachers is greater than students, communicative learning must occur in environments that support co-learning of both teachers and students.


Education for sustainability will require the integration of thinking and feeling, mind and body, science and spirit, knowledge and values, head and heart.  It will mean less time in classrooms and more time learning through experience.  It will require pedagogy founded on a model of transformative learning that engages the student’s mind, body and spirit, builds students’ capacity to make meaning of their experiences, and reconstruct their notion of self beyond the individual-self to include the family-self, community-self, and global-self.  Awareness of the connection between the individual, the community, and the cosmos are necessary attributes of education to prepare young people as leaders in sustainable world.

In my mind, few university programs fulfill this vision of education for sustainability (including our own certificate and major).   If you want an example however of a quality university program that truly prepares students to be leaders in a sustainable world, look to Living Routes Inc.  This program should be a model for us all!


This blog was adapted from a proposal I wrote in 2002 for a new “sustainability studies” curriculum (interestingly, the proposal was rejected by university administration).   And for more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.   And go here for more of my World.edu posts.

Online certificate in Sustainable Food and arming at the University of Massachusetts


One of the delights I’ve experienced recently at the University of Massachusetts is a marked increase of interest among students in sustainable food and farming.  I suspect we can partially attribute this to bestselling books by Michael Pollan, Barbara Kingsolver and Eric Schlosser, or perhaps movies such as Food, Inc and The Future of Food.  Whatever the cause, we’ve seen a more than 10-fold increase in the number of students who are choosing to major in Sustainable Food and Farming.

Global Education Online

Not everyone interested in learning about local food and farming systems however can attend college, so we created a  new 15-credit Certificate starting with courses offered this summer.  This program was designed to serve students who are not able to make a commitment to a 4-year degree but still want to earn college credentials.   The Certificate may be completed entirely online or by mixing online and campus classes.  I’ve had students in my online classes from Brazil, Korea and Argentina and all over the U.S. as well as locally.

Students taking online courses, earn the same academic credit from UMass as those students studying on campus and may transfer these credits to their home institution.

The Certificate, like the campus-based Bachelor of Sciences 4-year degree, serves students interested in three areas of study:

  1. Sustainable Farming Systems – this includes sustainable and organic plant and animal production systems for managing regionally-focused (local) farms, organic farms, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farms, and personal homesteads.
  2. Education – this includes youth education, citizen education, non-profit educational organizations, media work, and formal teaching relating to ecological food and farming.
  3. Public Policy and Advocacy – this includes working directly with people and groups in coalitions such as community gardens, anti-hunger campaigns, and environmental protection groups, as well as non-profit advocacy organizations, government agencies, and personal citizen involvement in political and community change efforts.

Information on the Certificate Requirements and an application form is linked here. Of course people who want to take an individual course are welcome to do so without working toward the Certificate.

For a list of courses being offered in upcoming term see: Future Classes.

These classes are part of the Sustainable Food and Farming Series.  A UMass Certificate may be earned by the successful completion of 15 credits of approved courses in this series.  For information, contact me at; [email protected]


I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends.  And for more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.   And go here for more of my World.edu posts.