How do I find a university that values family farmers and the Good Food Movement?

September 2012

Dear Farm Aid,

I was lucky enough to grow up in a household that has a CSA and a strong dedication to family farm food. Next month I start touring colleges with my parents and I'm worried that I'll lose that good food culture in college.

Are there universities out there that value the family farm?

Thanks,
Amanda H.
Sarasota, FL

College is a time of transition, one where we embark on a journey of self-discovery and profound change. While many shifts occur as you start college, losing your good food habits shouldn't be one of them.

Luckily, the Good Food Movement is spreading across America's college campuses. Whether in the cafeteria or the classroom — and even out in the fields — honoring good food from family farms is becoming a core value at several universities.

Farm to Cafeteria

Battling the "freshman fifteen" is a struggle for most college newbies, what with the abundance of all-you-can-eat buffets, on- and off-campus fried goodies and vending machines lining hallways. But a growing number of universities are turning that trend around by stocking their lunch lines with food from local farmers. As you tour potential colleges, checking out the campus cafeteria is a sure-fire way to get a sense of a university's commitment to family farmers.

Those universities that do commit are doing a great service to student health and the local economy. Fresher, high quality produce can be packed with more nutrients than foods sourced, processed and shipped from far away. A shorter supply chain using local farms can also address important food safety concerns as well as campus greening initiatives. What's more, as major purchasers of large amounts of food to feed their student and faculty population year-round, universities sourcing locally are a huge boon for local farms and the network of businesses that serve them.

Sadly, getting to that local food can be a huge task. Contracts locked down with large foodservice vendors, which typically run the cafeterias of universities and colleges, are often major limiting factors in getting farm to cafeteria programs off the ground. For foodservice staff, the additional work of sourcing from several farm vendors — all of which may have fluctuating supplies depending on the season — requires a bit more relationship-building and is often enough to turn them away from the prospect.

It's entirely possible that the college of your dreams won't be onboard with going local. That doesn't mean you can't do something about it. Back in 2005, Farm Aid co-hosted a national conference at Kenyon College called “Putting Local Food on the Table,” gathering over 300 participants to share their experiences and knowledge around developing farm to cafeteria programs. Many consider it a pivotal moment in the farm to school movement, helping institutions overcome steep barriers to getting local food on the lunch tray. Check out our Farm to School 101 Toolkit for tips on how you can get local food from family farms in your lunch line. Or link up with the Real Food Challenge, which works, school by school, along with young activists to shift $1 billion of university food budgets to local, environmentally conscious a more socially responsible food sources. You can also visit www.farmtocollege.org, a project of Farm Aid partner Community Food Security Coalition, for resource lists, school food program profiles and much more!

Cultivating Good Food Curricula

So much for the task of filling your belly with good food, but what about feeding your mind?

You're in luck, Amanda. The U.S. actually has a long history of supporting agricultural education. Congress passed the Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890 to establish "land-grant institutions" in every state, commissioned to focus on teaching applied disciplines like agriculture and engineering. Some of the oldest agricultural programs are at these schools. Here in Massachusetts, where the Farm Aid office is located, the University of Massachusetts - Amherst has a rich history of training students in agriculture. They boast an equine, sheep, swine and goat facility, a tree and small-fruit orchard, a turf management program, and an experimental cranberry bog. But like many universities, they're also getting hands-on with sustainable agriculture. The university more recently started the UMass Student Farming Enterprise, which hosts a year-long agricultural practicum course and a 2-acre certified organic farm growing 38 varieties of produce for a 50-share CSA, an on-campus farmers market, and University Dining Services. Graduates of the program have gone on to farm their own land, become farm managers for others, or lead at farm-related nonprofit organizations.

Like UMass, several colleges and universities are taking their cue from new interest among young people to start farms, and also from the growing success of sustainable agriculture in the marketplace. As such, programs and courses focused on sustainable farm and food systems are becoming a new staple in school curricula. We've been impressed by some trailblazers in the field, like The University of Vermont's Center for Sustainable Agriculture, the University of Wisconsin's Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems, Iowa State University's Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, and the University of California system's Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (SAREP). Two of our staff members here at Farm Aid actually earned their graduate degrees from another trailblazer, the Agriculture, Food and Environment Program at Tufts University's Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy.

Now more than ever, opportunities abound for a continuing education in good food! That's sweet music to our ears, because confronting economic and environmental challenges ahead will take an informed, skilled generation of young people able to work the land and carry the torch from the past generation. Check out the Sustainable Agriculture Education Association (SAEA) for more information on programs nationwide that may fit your interests.

School Farms

If you're interested in getting your hands dirty, look out for institutions that boast college farms, like the Dickinson College Organic Farm featured in this month's Farmer Hero profile of Jenn Halpin. Here at Farm Aid, we're excited to see a growing number of colleges like Dickinson College that are engaging their student body in on-farm internship, apprenticeship and training programs to complement their classroom educations. (Check out our Beginning Farmers Guide on the Farmer Resource Network for more resources on internship and apprenticeship programs.)

Turns out that it's a smart move for schools too, as it helps them meet other important goals. Dickinson College's farm, for example, is a 50-acre certified organic and Food Alliance certified farm laboratory that produces organic produce for campus dining facilities, supports a Campus Supported Agriculture (CSA) program and local farm stand, sources to local restaurants in the region and to hunger organizations. It also employs students while they're in school.

If that sounds up your alley, take a look at our Resource Partner, the Rodale Institute, which has a directory of university programs that allow you to farm for credit—using your time on the land to work towards a university degree. In addition, the FoodCorps is hiring young, emerging leaders across the country to reconnect America's youth to good food through school food programs and school gardens, and healthy eating education. It's a fantastic way to channel your interest in good food with real-world experience.

So, as you can see Amanda, it's never been easier to find a college education that supports your family's commitment to good food from family farms. Best of luck on your school hunt, and be sure to check back with us once you've made final decisions about your school!

Do you know of a trailblazing school helping fuel the Good Food Movement? Tell us about it below!

Further Reading

  • Read our Farmer Hero profile of Jenn Halpin, who is the Farm Manager at the Dickinson College Farm, which she established in 2007. Her work at the farm helps energize and train students from all academic backgrounds in agriculture.
  • Parents and students of all ages should take a look at our Farm to School 101 Toolkit for tips on how you can get local food from family farms into schools in your area.
  • Join us in celebrating National Farm to School Month, a time to celebrate the connections that are happening all over the country between schools and local food!
  • Check out our Beginning Farmers Guide on the Farmer Resource Network for more resources on internship and apprenticeship programs.
  • Visit www.farmtocollege.org for resource lists, school food program profiles and much more!

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