At Yale, Seeds of Revolution

curley mar09 main1.jpg

Photo by Sean Fraga

The archetypal college activist starts by taking over a building. The Yale Sustainable Food Project started similarly, but avoided the usual campus showdown, and ended with everyone sitting down to dinner instead.

In 2000, Yale undergraduates were inspired by the conviction that the toughest environmental challenges call upon us to change the way we eat and produce food. So they took over the office of the director of dining services, demanding local and organic food. They were offered beans -- literally (organic beans are cheap). This small victory motivated them to take their case to Yale President Richard C. Levin.

Levin saw the power of their idea, and raised them one: he proposed a college farm. The young idea won the support of Alice Waters, a Yale parent, and the visionary author and founder of Chez Panisse. Waters, a sort of mother at large to the sustainable food movement, added to their vision, inspiring the group to make this, as she says, a "delicious revolution." [Curator's note: I documented the impressive results of its first year in our pages, and first encountered the extremely enthusiastic group adventurously writing for us now.]

curley mar09 main.jpg

Photo by Sean Fraga

Today, the Sustainable Food Project has a small staff of five and the energy of hundreds of student volunteers and interns. We work and teach on the one-acre farm, which is the heart and soul of our Project. We advocate for sustainable food in student dining halls and develop model education programs on food, agriculture, and the environment for Yale students and the public. These efforts are the beginning of an ambitious program to change the way our country engages with food and agriculture.

College activists take over buildings. The Sustainable Food Project began similarly, but in the end we sat down to dinner instead.

I have had the honor and the challenge of working with a group of dedicated colleagues to build this project from the ground up. It's got deep roots now. My everyday work life still surprises me for the rare mix of agriculture, academics, bureaucracy, and activism that we've got going on here. There are thirty courses related to food and agriculture at Yale now; each of the dining halls serve a menu that is 40 percent local, seasonal, and sustainable; and 5 percent of the freshmen class attended a pre-orientation program on farms in the region.

I believe college students across the nation are hungry for this type of change. Our job is to give them the knowledge and the power to provide vital leadership on food, agriculture, and the environment -- and to learn from them, because so often they are pushing us to go farther.

We are a community of scholars, students, and staff -- teachers and learners -- who are driven by ideas, exploration, and action that aims to improve the world. Our medium is food and agriculture, and it seems to me that the most pressing questions of our day, from the economy, to education, to health care, and the environment, are deeply connected to what we eat and how it is produced.

Over the next few months, there will be a number of wonderful people joining me to talk about the work we do. You'll hear from my colleagues Anastatia, Hannah, and Amy Jean, whose good work and thoughtful queries regularly inspire, and from Dave Thier, a student farm intern, who knows the Sustainable Food Project and the student food movement inside and out. Our posts here will be conversational, academic, serious, hopeful, humorous, intellectual, and anecdotal.

Students across the nation head out into the world for spring break this week. In the meantime, I've challenged my class of nineteen, a small seminar exploring American agriculture and food, to tackle the first task that faces any young cook: roast a chicken.