Food, Sustainability and Higher Education – 2013


A year ago, I compiled a review of my 2012 blog posts, which focused on sustainability and higher education, as well as localization of food.  As I review my 2013 posts at, I find similar themes.  Here is a review of my posts for the past year starting with the discovery of a source of hope in a complex and distressing world.

Food Stories

Last spring I introduced the topic of finding a source of hope in a world gone crazy in “hope springs eternal from growing food“.  Inspired by this vision, I helped establish a new local organization, Grow Food Amherst, which encourages folks to get dirty and grow food.  Of course, most of my neighbors know I have a big garden, raise chickens, and harvest greens throughout the winter in an unheated greenhouse.  So I often get the question why do you want to do all that work?

My first thought often goes to the reality of our current global situation, which in my mind includes the “perfect storm” of climate change, peak oil and economic distress.  It is not a very hopeful perspective.  But then I remember all of the positives of growing my own food and the pleasure I get from giving it away to my neighbors – and hope returns – as sure as the darkness of winter is followed by the warmth of spring!

I continued the theme of local food throughout the year and in October, my blog post celebrated Food Day.  This is a nationwide celebration of healthy, affordable, and sustainably produced food and a grassroots campaign for better food policies. It builds all year long and culminates on October 24.  Locally, Grow Food Amherst organized a community potluck to celebrate.   It was a hopeful evening.

In September I celebrated our new UMass Renaissance garden.  In 2013, visitors to the Massachusetts Center for Interdisciplinary Renaissance Studies in Amherst, MA enjoyed the sense of traveling back in time to experience sights, smells and tastes of an authentic 16th-century kitchen garden.  UMass Stockbridge School of Agriculture Sustainable Food and Farming students grew  herb and vegetables to create the full-scale replica on the Center’s grounds.  Earlier related posts described the research done by students to develop the plan for the garden and some of the plants that would be included.

In June, I wrote about another new project in my hometown called All Things Local.  Imagine a collaborative community of residents and visitors where people work together to create a resilient local economy and a vibrant cultural vision.  Imagine a cooperative marketplace that offers lots of locally grown and locally made products, owned by producers and consumers.  Well, we did and All Things Local opened in December!

In my “is industrial food safe to eat” blog I wrote that while speaking about the number of incidents of food borne illnesses in the U.S., President Barak Obama reported on“…a troubling trend that’s seen the average number of outbreaks from contaminated produce and other foods grow to nearly 350 a year (up from 100 in the early 1990′s).”  President Obama announced new FDA appointments and “tougher food safety measures.”  Since his speech however, the problem has gotten worse!

Wonder why?  Well, it is all about industrial agriculture.  No amount of testing or safety measures will be enough until we understand the root cause of the problem.  In this post I took a look at the problems caused by misuse of antibiotics in an exploration of factory farming.

A headline in a medical magazine that read “Antibiotic Resistance at Factory Farms Scares the Hell Out of Scientists” caught my attention.  In this story, Johns Hopkins University Scientists declared that antibiotics should be banned from animal feed.  If we didn’t take action, they warned we are likely to see an explosion of human deaths from previously preventable bacterial diseases as antibiotics become less effective.  Fortunately, the F.D.A. has acted to make it  more difficult for factory farms to use antibiotics!  While not illegal this common practice will surely become less common.

Nevertheless, industrialization of agriculture (and all of life) is a worldview that dominates our thinking.  To give us food at the least cost corporations exploit both the environment and people.  Universities contribute to this way of thinking by the way we teach agriculture.  I explore why that is the case below and in a set of posts here.

Sustainability and Higher Education

One of my great loves is the “ideal” of the land grant mission, yet I continue to wonder if people really understand the legacy we have been given.  In “do public land grant universities serve the public good” I explored this question.  I wondered how many faculty, students and administrators are truly committed (or even understand) our land grant heritage.  This post explored our heritage and the commitment of the public land grant university to serve its public mission (or not).

I explored why so many university administrators seem to fail as leaders in “on leadership.”  Many organizations are over-managed and under-led. Daily routines are handled, but no one questions whether the routine should be done at all. Over time, the organization find itself humming along efficiently, but not terribly effectively.  Outsiders and insiders begin to question the need for the organization – and a crisis in leadership ensues.  At this time of rapid social and economic change, leadership will help determine which organizations prove sustainable.  I believe universities are in jeopardy.

Around graduation day at UMass last spring, I pondered the big “graduation day question“.   May is the time of year at universities when faculty have the privilege of meeting the families of students we have known for four years.  It’s a time of celebration, transition, and that “dreaded” question from family members….. “so now that you have a college degree, what are you planning to do with it?”   The implication of course, is that the primary purpose of a college degree is for “job preparation.”  This post explores this confusing problem and offers a holistic perspective.

Bringing together two of my favorite themes, food systems and higher education, I celebrated the decision by the Chancellor of the University of Massachusetts to sign the Real Food Challenge.  The Chancellor of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, MA agreed to sign the Real Food Challenge.  This decision made UMass the largest university in America (serving about 40,000 meals per day) willing to commit to 20% of our food budget to socially responsible farms and food businesses – what we call ‘real food.’  Our students can take credit for making this happen!  Nothing really creative happens at most universities unless it is pushed by students!

Continuing the theme of food and higher education, I announced the establishment of a new major at UMass last year.  The university that began as “Mass Aggie” announced a new Bachelor of Sciences major in Sustainable Food and Farming.  Interest in this area of study has been growing steadily over the past 10 years.  Originally a concentration within the Plant and Soil Sciences major, Sustainable Food and Farming grew from just five students in 2003 to nearly one hundred in 2013.  The rapid growth in student interest provided impetus creation of the new major 2013.  This is another source of hope, driven by students.

In “your life is a story within a larger story”, I got kind of philosophical.  I was preparing to teach my Agricultural Systems Thinking class, and started thinking (again) about hierarchy.  I explored this topic a while back in “Systems Thinking Tools: Understanding Hierarchy“, in which I wrote about the power relationships in a human constructed hierarchy (like a university) as compared with a natural systems hierarchy (like an ecosystem).

Systems thinking helps us understand why universities and other hierarchies can be so destructive to the human spirit.  It also helps us realize that there is a source of hope that these institutions can change.


Please check out my Just Food Now Resource Page and see our Sustainable Food and Farming Bachelor of Sciences program at the University of Massachusetts.