VC co-op explores food, farming in Hudson Valley

For Vassar students who eat most of their meals at the All-Campus Dining Center, it is easy to take food for granted. However, some students remedy this issue by taking part in the various cooperative living opportunities on campus which enable students to become more aware of the food production process.

The Multidisciplinary Learning-Living Cooperative is a semester-long program which allows for cultural and academic immersion with a focus on food and provides students with a chance to engage with Poughkeepsie and the Hudson Valley in an entirely new way.

“About 15-20 students will enroll in the same set of classes, which are coordinated to be complementary, and they’ll live together in cooperative housing,” the MLLC’s website explains.

This group of students lives together in a shared Town House. “Since we’ll all have the same schedule, we’ll also have the opportunity to do field trips and projects that aren’t possible in a normal semester,” read the website.

The curriculum for the MLLC integrates multiple fields of studyin addition to field trips to farms and other food sites. This approach allows students and faculty to thoroughly examine the food focus from multiple angles and to ground it in the agriculture and culture of the Hudson Valley.

“One of the most incredible aspects of this program was the different perspectives on farming, farming methods, food and the environment that it forced us to evaluate,” wrote fall participant Alicia Robinson-Welsh ‘15 in an emailed statement.

The exposure to all of this new information inspired students to start questioning those things they had once assumed were a given.

She continued, “With an introduction to both conventional industrial farming and small-scale organic farming from the very start, we were able to think critically about both methods of producing food and come up with our own answers to the question: How has agriculture evolved, where is it going and what is the best way to make changes to our current agricultural system in order to feed the world’s population as well as preserve and nurture the resources we will need most in the future?”

Courses listed for MLLC 2013 include Food in Cultural and Social Contexts, The Chemistry of Cuisine and A Taste of Terroir: French Methodologies for Experiencing the Earth. These courses are designed to incorporate food into the learning environment.

However, in the past having a set curriculum has been a concern for some students who were worried about fulfilling credits for their major, but the Dean of the College Christopher Roellke announced in a recent email that in the future participants will be allowed to take courses outside of the program’s listed classes.

Another key component of the MLLC is field work, the only component of the curriculum which allows students to work on individual projects of their choice.

Robinson-Welsh wrote,“I worked at Four Winds Farm, on a small, no-till organic vegetable farm in Gardner, N.Y. twice a week on Fridays and Saturdays.”

She added, “It was my favorite part of the program because I was able to get off campus and get my hands dirty, working outside and with animals, planting, harvesting, and learning about what it means to run a farm.”

Emily Lansdale ‘14 incorporated the food focus in a different way as a volunteer at the Queen’s Galley Soup Kitchen.

“I got to meet people I never would have interacted with and learned from them and how they live. I also learned a lot about food [and] producing large quantities of healthy food for low income people that appeals to them. I loved the social justice component to that work,” she said.

Field work was not the only chance for students to have hands-on experience. Robinson-Welsh and Lansdale both described the group project of building and maintaining a coop of chickens, which provided the house with fresh eggs and another chance to bond with each other.

“I think they really taught us to work together too because we had to build the coop together, clean together and create a feeding schedule,” said Lansdale.

Students said it would be impossible to separate the academic curriculum, cooperative living system and off-campus trips and work from each other, or from the food focus.

Robinson-Welsh wrote, “The living component was an invaluable component of the program; it meant we got to know each other, cooked together, talked about class together…rather than hardly ever interacting with our classmates or getting to talk about the issues we were learning about outside of class, sharing personal opinions and delving deeper into the material. We were all in it together.”

Lansdale agreed, adding that the food focus was a commitment that moved beyond the classroom.

“We cook together and shop based on what we learned and what knowledge each individual brings to the group. We had two farm shares form the Poughkeepsie Farm Project so we got fresh produce every week and we get only local humanely treated meat,” she said.

Some professors involved in the program espoused the benefits of students working closely together.

Geography Professor Mary Ann Cunningham who taught a MLLC course this past fall, wrote in an emailed statement, “I would say from my perspective that moving together among classes gives both closeness and intensity.

She added, “I thought the students had a very good rapport—they were struggling together with the same things, and I understand that conversations about class topics spilled over into conversations at other times, which was something we hoped for.”

The field work, off-campus trips and focused curriculum provide a way to connect more deeply with the Hudson Valley, while also immersing themselves with Vassar in an entirely new way. Professor Cunningham described the benefits of joining students for off-campus trips and teaching them as a group. She said, “I think faculty really enjoy getting to know more about how interesting our students are as individuals.”

Another unique tradition of the MLLC is that of the faculty dinners, in which the group invites professors they’re  interested in over for dinner and discussion.

“It’s so nice to know more faculty on campus from departments I normally wouldn’t know anyone from and we know them in a less formal way which is great! They could talk about their life philosophies which was so inspiring” wrote Lansdale.

Cunningham said she appreciated the opportunity to get to know students on a more personal level as well.

“I felt like I got to know the students more because we faculty spent more time with them, on field trips and sometimes in each other’s classes, and I really appreciated that. I think faculty really enjoy getting to know more about how interesting our students are as individuals,” she said.

The MLLC not only gave students the opportunity to become closer with their peers and professors, but allowed them to become more familiar with the area and all that it can offer.

Robinson-Welsh said, “The MLLC was a unique, diverse and rich program that I am grateful to have been a part of. It also brought us into the local community through our field work, field trips and the way in which it introduced us to local food producers, processors and other food-related organizations.”

She concluded, “It made me realize how rich and fertile this region is, and also the problems of food access and security in the area and what needs to be changed.”

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