Spiritual Eating; The Teachings of Sonjae Sunim and Rick Jarow

This week we traversed the culinary realm in a metaphysical sense, considering the spiritual connections between our palates and our mind’s eye. From mindfulness to meditation, the Coop explored- with the guidance of two wise scholars- a profound aspect of food too often left out of our everyday gastronomic conversations.

South Korean Buddhist nun, Sonjae sunim, is a scholar and master chef of Buddhist temple food, as well as a practitioner of environmentally conscious cooking. Sonjae sunim is also president of the Sunjae Temple Food and Culture Research Center. In addition to lecturing and publishing worldwide on Korean Buddhist temple food, she hosts the program Green Flavor, Green Cooking (or Food) of a Monk on the Buddhist Television Network.

Sonjae Sunim in our very own Taylor Hall!

On November 13th, a chilly Tuesday evening, Sonjae spoke about Buddhist temple food and the Buddhist philosophy of eating at Vassar’s Taylor Hall to a diverse, attentive crowd. Sonjae sunim also led an experiential workshop on Buddhist temple food and eating on Wednesday evening and a cooking demonstration on Kimch’i, the famous fermented Korean vegetable on Thursday in the kitchen of Ferry House.

Professor and Chair of Sociology, Seungsook Moon introduced Tuesday’s lecture with the assertion that “food is a sociological issue.” and the importance of food in a contemporary context- namely eating environmentally and mindfully. One of the first buddhist priests interested in buddhist temple food, Sonjae sunim graced the front of the room with a refreshingly happy glowing face, a muted pale blue grey robe draped over her frame. Sonjae spoke with a refreshing, pleasant demeanor throughout the lecture, her never smile faltering nor the twinkle in her eye ever fading. Her enthusiastic hand movements made for a dynamic and engaging lecture; the energy and passion with which Sonjae approaches her work, values, beliefs, and life as a whole.

Sociology Professor Moon helping translate the audience’s questions

Sonjae sunim began her talk by sharing a solemn note of how she fell ill many years ago, and was told she only had one more year to live. Following the wise inquiry of Buddha- one of his first questions asked being “What do you eat?” – Sonjae decided to take control of her life, changed her diet, and proudly proclaims is still here after 20 years of her diagnosis!

This inspiring anecdote of immense strength and self-reliance in the face of adversity, above all fatality, ignited the rest of Sonjae’s words about happiness and the nature of being healthy. According to Sonjae, happiness lies in maintaining a fit body and mental state, the basis of which starts with healthy eating. Furthermore, the basis of health eating stems from healthy ground, soil, and water. “Nature is the basis of my happiness” says Sonjae. Additionally, Sonjae sunim spoke about the inherent connection between food and the natural ecosystem of Earth, “Food makes a person. Food makes me. Eating a tomato is a way of getting in touch with nature.”

The impact of the food we eat on our bodies is simple and direct, according to Buddhist ideas. “If you eat violent animals, you take that in with your nature. Artificial flavors destroy the body” says Sonjae, “If I put something that was grown in polluted soil in my body, I am polluting my body.” Specific foods are also completely banned, such as meat and seafood, because eating meat is attributed to eating flesh, and therefore life. This violates one of the first doctrines of Buddhism, which is to not kill. Buddhist ideology views the self in the middle with Buddha, plants, and animals all existing equally around  us. Sonjae articulates, “We all coexist;” the universe consists of sentient (meat, animals, seafood) and non-sentient beings (plants, wind, water, soil) all of which are “a part of nature, a part of me.”

Buddhist Wheel of Life

Additionally, there are five ‘taboo foods’: garlic, scallions, onions, chives, and leeks. These foods are thought to change one’s temperament if ingested, just as different cuisines from different parts of Korea affect temperament. For instance, great artists tend to come from mountainous regions where they eat lots of vegetables. Finally, the Buddhist tradition emphasizes a cuisine of simplicity, with the least amount of ingredients. How do Buddhists flavor their food then? wondered a member of the audience. Condiments such as ginger, soy sauce, fermented soy bean paste, and shiitake mushrooms, replied Sonjae.

“I can teach life views of Buddhism through food” Sonjae explained as she recounted a story about how she fed children kimbap without ham and egg (ham is an unclean meat because it has artificial flavoring and has been slaughtered; egg is viewed as a growth enhancement in children’s bodies). After trying the rice and vegetables, the kids asked their mothers to prepare the same vegetables. Though the children have eaten vegetables before, they were unfamiliar with the sweet taste of pure vegetables since they are usually fried in egg.

kimbap, a popular Korean delicacy similar to sushi

“We don’t just eat with our mouth, we eat with our whole body. We eat with our eyes and ears, consume with our skin and nose” asserted Sonjae. Sonjae drew a parallel between eating ‘polluted’ foods and moving to a place with bad air and atmosphere- these toxins are taken into the body. Essentially, the central theme of temple food is what you eat makes you who you are, “you can either eat to live or eat to live and be healthy. Healthy eating and vegetarianism gives you life, fitness, and wisdom.”

In Buddhism, food is considered medicine, and not just for people who are ill. Medicine can only preventing disease in the present moment, says Sonjae, whereas natural eating can be just as effective as medicines. What people are eating corresponds to the diseases they incur; for example breast cancer is the result of too much fat blocking the veins, thus the body is too heated and humid- it should be colder like in nature. Though Sonjae sunim admits she is not a certified doctor, and therefore cannot claim food is medicine, she has seen temperaments change, cancer going away and health getting better with a shift to healthier diets.

The audience was stunned in awe when Sonjae challenged us to try and guess her age- some called out “35! 40!”- and then revealed she is actually 57 years old (33 years of which have been spent in the monastery)! Sonjae’s glow and youthful visage fool many people into thinking she is younger than she appears, which often prompts questions about what she eats on a daily basis. However, Sonjae, like the Buddha, simply replies with the question, “What do you eat?” Sonjae stresses the importance of not thinking about what you should eat, but what shouldn’t eat. Consequently, if you need to eat meat, says the Buddhist nun, eat clean meat and avoid artificial ingredients that a 5 year old would not recognize.

Sonjae closed her lecture by highlighting how her personal story has turned her into a public figure. She advised the audience to always eat foods that are in season (i.e. cucumbers in thesummertime) and try to eat foods grown naturally as much as possible. The order we take in food is also very important (i.e drinking alcohol after eating). Likewise, our first meal and first bite are important. Consuming salty/spicy items for breakfast negatively affects the entire day’s digestive process. During the day, one’s digestive process is more active and can handle the largest portion of food. As we wind down to dinnertime and our digestion slows, we should eat something light, advises Sonjae; “Eat in accordance with nature” meaning from the hours of sunrise to sunset, “or at least try to eat 2 hours before going to sleep.” Finally, drinking green tea is seen as something akin to meditation, with tremendous calming effects. Drinking fresh, clean, good water is considered essential to health. Sonjae stressed the importance of regular exercise as part of a healthy, balanced life- this can be as simple as walking or the Buddhist practice of bowing.

an illustration of the Buddhist bowing exercise

The next evening, Wednesday November 14th, Sonjae sunim followed her lecture by leading an experiential workshop on Buddhist temple food and eating. “You must have a clean state of mind to make Baru” said the Buddhist nun. Baru is the food bowl of a Buddhist monk, includes four bowls: one for rice, soup, water, and a side dish. In accordance with the guidelines Sonjae explained Tuesday evening, the bowls contain no meat, seafood, alcohol, garlic, scallions, or artificial additions, but instead vegetables, kimch’i, and bean paste that has been fermented for three years. The menu is also prepared in a lotus leaf, which is said to help the immune system. This “clean, healthy food” carries the “energy of the universe in it.”

a variety of fermented foods including kimchi

The workshop centered around mindful, conscious eating- taking the time to eat and only eat. Sonjae advised the eager participants to only take “as much as you can eat” and to “chew slowly, soaking up the taste” and “straighten your back” as you eat. It usually takes an hour to go through the process. Sonjae had the group do a practice round, closing their eyes, breathing deeply, noticing how they picked up their utensil, paying attention to the food entering their mouth, the sensations on their tongue, teeth, jaw, and feeling the food go down into their digestive system. From bowl to mouth, the experience proved to be an incredibly meaningful, transformative moment, inciting us to reconsider our relationship to food and the ritual of eating.

That same night, Rick Jarow, Professor of Religion and Asian Studies joined us for house dinner- a scrumptious vegetarian meal of tofu, sauteed Brussels sprouts, sweet potato chips, sweet potato salad (a delicious recipe from Maddie’s mom), and baked portobello mushrooms stuffed with mozzarella cheese!

Rick has lived extensively in India, mostly in North India in the areas of Braj and Rishikesh. Jarrow received his Ph.D. from Columbia University (1991) in Indian Religion and Literature. His dissertation, “Language, Love, and Silence: Readings of Separation in the Sanskrit Epic, Poetic, and Puranic Traditions,” is a discussion of the theme of loss in Indian literary and religious traditions. His research interests include: Religions of South Asia (Hindu Traditions and Buddhist Traditions), East/West Studies, The Eastern Romance of Jack Kerouac, Indian Languages and Literatures (Indian Epic and Puranic Traditions), The Poetics of Religious Experience, and Vocation. His book, Tales for the Dying: The Death Narrative of the Bhãgavata-Purãna was published by SUNY Press in 2003.

Alicia and Maddie’s roasted portobellos and mozz! YUM

Rick teaches healing Ayurvedic traditions, a native Indian form of medicine that emphasizes health and digestion. One of the most significant parts of healthy eating relies on the very basic act of chewing ones food. Rick shared with us that a healthy individual should chew his or her food 50 times, someone who is ill should chew 100 times, and those fatally ill should chomp their morsels 200 times! Rick informed us that chewing is not only essential for proper digestion, but also viewed as a meditative process in the Ayurvedic tradition.

Rick divulged that he was a college dropout turned yoga madman, moved to India, and eventually moved back to America. An ideological vegetarian for many years, Rick, like Sonjae, fell very sick once and almost died which spurred his interest in Ayurveda. “Vassar is a part time gig for me,” quipped Jarow as he explained his broader identification with spiritual teaching through the Indian chakra system and vocational alignment which questions what does it mean to be in harmony with life? According to the chakra, the body is considered energetically from root to head and eating is deeply connected to survival and consciousness.

We were all curious to hear more about Ayurveda and Rick was more than pleased to share! We learned that the Ayurvedic tradition maintains the ego, that in order to survive, your ego must dominate whatever you are eating. Hinduism apparently finds this a problem. Therefore, when one takes (eats) something, one must give something in return. According to Rick, ‘we’ think a lot, talk a lot- are unaware, our bodies ‘someplace else.’ Instead, like Sonjae, Rick urges us to be in communion with the food we are eating.

Professor Jarow went on to explicate the ritual of offering food in Buddhist practice, where food is left on an altar, intended for the gods to enjoy first with the understanding that ‘we’ will eat what is leftover. Professor Jarow explained how this is considered a tantric act, where the divine is eating ‘through’ us.

Along his spiritual life journey, Rick was once told “your job now is to go home and cook slowly.” And so he listened. The professor sees cooking as a form of meditation where everything turns into divine substance. Furthermore, every form lives off another,  so then who eats us? “Human beings are being cooked and eaten by time” Jarow answered himself. “When yogis know they are about to die,” Rick says, “they stop eating in order to offer their last breath to the universe.”


Enjoying our groovy guest and delicious grub

Professor Jarow challenged us that night at dinner, urging us to think outside the plate. “Embodiment, what does it mean?” pondered Professor Jarow. “Its not what you eat but how you eat” he surmised.

I was curious to know if Rick’s family abides by the same doctrines as he, being an ideological vegetarian who believes in chewing one’s food more than the average hungry person. He replied that his family supports him though they do not follow the Buddhist diet strictly. He knows he must let people “be who they are” and finds it interesting to watch his childrens’ journey with food.

We spent the rest of the evening discussing everything from Ayahuascaholotropic breathwork, and holistic centers like Omega and Esalen Institutes, to Vassar’s Carolyn grant fund and the “dead idea of college”- going somewhere for four year and leaving. (He then went on to explain his idea for Vassar to adopt two graduate programs, one in health and one for a writing program; this would create a more vibrant, enriching learning community beyond the typical 4 year experience according to Jarow.)

Rick spoke passionately about the economic pressure students face today to get a job, not like in ‘his day’ when you could “work at a coffee shop or book store” rent a cheap room, and read and study all day and it be ok. Rick decided “I’m only going to do what I love and teach what I love.”

Aside from imparting his extensive wisdom upon eager Vassar students, Rick is also a   teacher at the Omega Institute, practicing career consultant and founder of the “Anti-Career” process. He is author of many books and CDs, including Creating the Work You Love, Alchemy of Abundance, and The Ultimate Anti-Career Guide

In this video uploaded from Omega called Kosmos, Rick conjectures, “anything that afflicts you is an angel, that is, giving you a message of what your full possibility can be and that is its value.” He goes on, “My sense is that every human being comes onto this planet with a healed vision, with a piece of the puzzle that they have,  and that when they put that piece together, their ancestors become proud, their parents become proud, generations rejoice because you’ve nailed it. I can’t imagine a better feeling than saying ‘I’ve come to this Earth and I did what I was supposed to do’ and move on in peace.”

The evening grew dark and so we bid our guest goodnight, leaving the table with plates empty, but our tummies and stomachs full with satisfying “food for thought.”


Glynwood Higher Education Food Systems Conference Weekend

Green acres is the place for me.
Farm livin’ is the life for me.
Land spreadin’ out so far and wide
Keep Manhattan, just give me that countryside.

Goodbye Poughkeepsie life, green acres we are there!

Despite the dreary start to the weekend (a grey and muddy Friday morning and afternoon), the Coop, accompanied by our super Prof team, journeyed to lovely Cold Springs, NY to visit Glynwood Institute for the weekend. The Institute’s mission is “to help communities in the Northeast save farming” by working with, understanding, and empowering communities, farmers, and landowners. Furthermore, Glynwood’s vision focuses on shifting the U.S. food supply to a regional system based on environmentally sustainable agriculture- thereby revitalizing farm and farm communities while providing access to fresh healthy food to consumers.

After our respective half-days at field work, we quickly tore off our rain and mud-soiled farmwear, packed last minute essentials (or some packed entirely at that moment!), and put our rainboots BACK on for the watery ride. We diverged from the Town Houses in two cars (Emma riding in style with Jojo, Nikki, and Alicia in her car while Mary Ann Emily, Yael, and I took off in a VC Security van). Mary Ann’s car made a pit stop at Poughkeepsie Day School to pick up our little Maddie in her yellow raincoat, waiting patiently in the schoolyard amidst children and yellow buses (just kidding, she does not still attend middle school, she had just finished field work!)

Welcome to Downton Abbey...er Glynwood

After a car-full of fun and good conversation, we arrived around 3:30pm Friday afternoon- completely in awe as we made our way along the windy path through the beautiful grounds, full of young fall foilage just waiting to burst in autumnal colors. We made our way to the Main House to unload our bags and meet the other conference guests. But first, we could not resist a brief tour of our accommodations- a quaint country cottage-style house with rambling halls that led to darling rooms with fancy, customized door signs, antique quilted beds and fluffy white terry cloth robes. Some of us explored a bit of the land around the house while snacking on local apples- discovering cows and horses grazing in a stone-fenced lawn; gardens, forests, and a fountain straight from the pages of The Secret Garden; and taking in more of the gorgeous landscape- lush green rolling farmland dotted with rustic crimson barns and white farmhouses.


The Wonderful World of Glynwood!

NY's Hudson Valley or Irish Countryside?

We reluctantly tore ourselves away from the storybook scenery, venturing back inside for the 5:00 reception in the Main House Library where we mingled and chatted over cheese and root beer with students and faculty from Williams College of Williamstown MA, Smith College of Northhampton MA, and the Culinary Institute of America in our nearby Hyde Park, NY. Shortly after, we convened in the Living Room for our official welcome from our dear Glynwood hosts including President Kathleen Frith and made our formal introductions- students, professors, and staff each went around the room to say our name, school, major/class year or field of expertise, as well as any food related field work, project, experiences, and/or role in the weekend’s activities.

Why have plain water when you can have SPARKLING water?!

How many dining bucks does this cost?!












Our bellies grumbling from a days worth of rain-speckled field work, vehicular treks, picturesque pastures, and hors d’oeuvres it was finally time for dinner! We feasted on a local spread of roasted chicken, potatoes, salad, seitan, and a decadent apple crumble dessert! Suddenly, Virginia, Glynwood’s Director of Community Based Programs surprised us all with a hat full of strips of paper which she instructed us to dive into one by one, choosing the name of the character we would be impersonating in a mock community forum to be held Sunday afternoon.

Choosing our fates/alter-egos

Stuffed full with delicious cuisine and conversation, but piqued with curiosity, we rolled ourselves back into the Living Room to learn more about the weekend ahead.  Burt and Virginia equally convinced us that we were in for an exciting- albeit mysterious- bout of days and nights ahead. Our characters, we were told, were based off of real people in the community- farmers, council members, townspeople- that would likely be involved in a mythical discussion about the creation of a ‘local food hub.’

Food hubs are distribution centers that provide a logistical and marketing interface between farmers and regional buyers- making it easier for local and regional farmers to compete with the mainstream, consolidated food production and distribution system.

We received small yellow envelopes adorned with our characters names as well as red folders full of itineraries, speaker bios, and reading material about Glynwood and food hubs. The setting was all too reminiscent of Clue: a dark stormy night spent in the library, living room, kitchen, meeting strangers and preparing our alternate identities- I went to bed that night praying we all woke up for breakfast…


Traversing and touring

Luckily, we all arose the next morning, bright and early, to an 8am breakfast- another one of many feasts- of egg and pepper frittata, warm oatmeal, fresh granola and yogurt, honeydew, concord grapes, tea and coffee. Fueled for the day ahead, we got ready for a personal tour ofthe Glynwood grounds where we saw all the quintessential farmyard wonders- chickens, pigs, goats, cows, horses, compost heaps, barns, hay, and vegetables.



& squashes, oh my!

We then met farm apprentices Sophie and Valerie and piled onto the back of a pickup truck to harvest our own veggies for dinner! My group followed Sophie to pick broccoli.

Sophie showing off her beloved brassicas!

Real farmers, Maddie and Maya, ride in the trunk!










After our taste of farm labor, it was time for mouth labor- LUNCH. A hearty spread of sandwiches, salad, and butternut squash soup warmed our soggy bones for our next activity- a plenary session entitled, The Regional Food System: Who Makes it Work. We all hunkered down in the living room, our hands juggling notebooks, coffee, and tea but our minds anxiously awaiting the words of food system experts. We heard from:

  • Paul Wigsten, a farmer on Wigsten Farm commented that he has seen improvements within the Hudson Valley food system over the last 20 years. In the past 5 years, he has expanded his market and relationships with wholesale retailers but admits that he cannot afford to drive to and solicit customers in the city. Heres where distributors like Red Barn Produce of New Paltz come in, with a truck to pull away his organic vegetables, leaving Paul more precious time to concentrate on and do what he does best- growing and farming. Paul also divulged that he works closely with a seed saver exchange in the Midwest to preserve heirloom varieties of tomatoes and melons. Wigsten remarked that the regional food system in the Hudson Valley is ‘alive and well’ in his perspective.
  • Allie Comet, a young farmer, is in her fourth year of farming, having worked on diversified farms in California and Maine before arriving at Glynwood. Allie spoke about the route most young farmers take from apprenticeship to management, highlighting the challenges from training (both in the field as well as practical business and marketing skills), to access to land and capital. Allie also represents a subset of farmers who are not born into an agricultural family, having grown up in Brooklyn NY. She noted that this sometimes is difficult in that its not always clear where to go for help; but on the other hand, her steady salary is definitely a unique plus. Allie finally spoke about the cultural place of agriculture, inquiring whether agriculture has become culturally important, and wondering how we position farms in our community.
  • Matthew Flusser born and raised New Yorker as well, is the Operations Manager for Farm to Table Co-Packers in New Paltz. A big advocate of buying local foods and for sustainability and lowering carbon footprint, Matthew acknowledges that everybody wants local food but can always afford to buy from multiple farms. At the same time, farmers can’t afford to leave their land and livestock. Amidst all of this, Matt and his Co-packers are running rampant, sometimes working 23 hours a day trying to maintain a consistent flow of washing, chopping, pouring, and regulating produce all the while trying to solve issues of space, organization, and waste.
  • Michael Abbate works as the Chief Operating Officer for Common Capital, Inc., a non-profit economic and community development organization that serves Western Massachusetts. Michael oversees program development, manages the organization’s Healthy Food Financing program, in addition to all other financial management and marketing functions. Abbate commented that he and his organization must take the role of developer, helping people with great ideas find the assistance they need. Michael noted that the Pioneer Valley of MA is in need of more infrastructure and has the potential to be the model for other parts of the U.S., by shaping the regional food system through social transformation.
  • Don Lewis, founder, baker, and miller at Wild Hive Farm Community Grain Project in Clinton Corners, NY began his farming life as a commercial beekeeper and went on to become a founding member of the Union Square Greenmarket. In the past 3-5 years Wild Hive Farm and the Wild Hive Community Grain Project have almost tripled in size and activity; developing a strong following among chefs, commercial bakers, and home bakers. Don plans to expand the offerings of the Wild Hive Community Grain Project and develop the Farm’s facilities as a means of teaching agriculture. Don noted that education is the most important part of transforming the food system, that we need to make people more aware of why buying ‘local’ and ‘organic’ is important. Don also commented that with the increasing demand from customers and a wealth of growers, we need to be able to rely on neighbors in the region.
  • Michael Sweeton is the Supervisor for the Town of Warwick (the largest town geographically in Orange County NY!) and a strong advocate for agriculture, having worked with the Town Board to revamp the town’s zoning code to include farm friendly provisions that support farmers, farms, and farming. Michael notes that the role of a municipal leader is to provide of course leadership, understanding of the importance of agriculture, and to promote farms! Michael also considers himself, as well as other members of municipality, a buffer between higher federal agencies and the community.

Michael was kind enough to provide us all with a wonderfully informative packet entitled, “The Road to Smart Growth and Agricultural Friendly Zoning.” Enclosed were general facts about Warwick and farming in the town (agriculture is their largest industry- generating over $35 million!); planning tools for farmland and open space preservation; and agriculture friendly options including ADD (Agricultural Advancement District).

  • Joel Russell has been a community planning consultant and land use attorney for 34 years; he has been at the forefront of the sustainability movement in planning, open space preservation, and urban design, nationally and in both New York’s Hudson Valley and Massachusetts’s Pioneer Valley. Joel, like Michael Sweeton, commented that his role as planner is to be a catalyst, trying to bridge the gap between points of view of both parties, all the while satisfying each’s interest.

Dizzy with engaging insight on all things food system-y, it was time for a break, 2:30pm- and as Virginia perfectly anticipated- the perfect time for brownies, cookies, and tea. Did I mention it was perfect?

Sugared up for some “character groups” breakout sessions, we went our separate ways  to our respective locations to pick the brains of experts. Farmers put up their feet (not really) in the living room with Paul, Allie, Jesse, Sophie, and Valerie. The Public Sector (community leaders and planners) convened in the Study with Michael Sweeton and Joel Russell. The Finance/Business Development people met with Michael Abbate and Don Lewis. Institutional Purchasing moseyed on over to the work room with Matthew Flusser and Melissa Adams. And finally. the two boisterous citizen activists schemed with Fran Volkman in the Main House sitting room. Now that we had some one-on-one time with the pros, we were able to strategize talking points and concerns our characters might wish to bring up at Sunday’s mock meeting.

With a good chunk of time until dinner, we spent our time wisely- some helped with dinner preparations, some went for another outdoor expedition around the lake house and through the woods, while others caught up on some z’s…

Pizza prep fun with Emma, Yael, Caitlin, and Jojo

JoJo trying to wrangle Thunder for some unrequited snuggles

 Again, we feasted. The CIA students/chefs/food extraordinaires whipped together a bountiful, gourmet supper of homemade pizzas (including a gluten-free pie!) topped with our freshly-harvested-from-the-fields butternut squash ‘sauce’, mushrooms, and assorted veggies, tangy tufts of goat cheese, as well as a ‘meat lovers’ choice for those who crave their carne. Fresh salad, sauteed rainbow chard, broccoli and the elusive chicken mushroom a.k.a. sulphur shelf a.k.a. chicken of the woods a.k.a. tasty substance spotted by Smith’s own Nichole rounded out the spread! For dessert, the CIA masters continued to tickle our taste buds with a baked apple/apple compote/apple reduction- basically an APPLE EXTRAVAGANZA combo of warm, sweet, tart, gooey (plus a hint of lavender!) goodness!!

A well-deserved round of applause for the kitchen crew!

Alicia and Maddie, 20 going on 7?

Tiny hands and pumpkin carving- scarier than Halloween!

After that wonderfully gluttonous dinner, we were invited into the Work Room for some fireside fun! Here we all gathered around the glowing fireplace, sipping coffee, tea, and cider while snacking (YES, more food!) on apple cider doughnuts and leftover pizza. Some of us carved pumpkins with Michael Abbate’s darling children, while others chatted before turning in for the night.

Our masterpieces: Coop's chicken, CIA's pig, Williams' cow, and a classic jack-o-lantern!

We got to sleep in- kind of! Breakfast was served at 9am this morning but something was different this time. A strange, ‘twilight zone‘ feeling was tangible in the air- a transformation had occurred overnight and today we weren’t ourselves…

We were our characters! Everyone arose that morning in good spirits and with an eagerness to take on the roles we had chosen Friday evening, to finally release the artistic personalities we worked so hard preparing, shaping, and honing throughout the weekend.

Breakfast and powerpoints!

The Community Meeting to Identify issues Relating to the Establishment of a Local Food Hub began in the dining room. First, we were welcomed by Burt, our genial mediator, who then handed the floor over to our Mayor Joe Bolatto (Meghan from CIA) to welcome and thank everyone for attending. We then went around the room introducing ourselves (our alter-egos that is!) It was a hoot seeing everyone in their prime acting personas!

The mock community stakeholder meeting continued in the living room. Burt helped us get the ball rolling by prompting us to list both what is working and not working in the current regional food system. We came up with:

  • customer demand (regionally & families)
  • easy to get food one needs
  • producing a diverse spectrum (produce & livestock)
  • farmers markets, etc.
  • growing awareness (fresh, local, organic are important)
  • we have farms!
  • variety of financing mechanisms to support local farms
  • NYC market
  • local population density can support system
  • engaged community
  • community ties, relationships to local farmers
  • large land conservation
  • large open spaces = desirable aesthetic

Burt, the list-making legend!

  • smaller farms plateaued in terms of growth
  • not enough collateral; difficult to get financing
  • can’t get quality, service, supple
  • distribution
    • between wholesale and farmer
    • within market area
  • don’t have equipment to distribute
  • labor limited
  • no slaughtering facility locally
  • agriculture not working in general
    • no tax
    • equipment
    • facility
    • distribution
  • economy
    • local economy not stimulated by current regional food ystem
    • unemployment
  • supply not consistent
  • regional system cannot support local population
    • cannot support demand for fresh local food
  • local crops subject to variable weather/climate
  • management expertise
  • space (access to)
  • financing to expand markets
  • seasonal deman difficult to handle (need processing)
  • mechanisms for: partnership, education, relationships, and resources
  • increasing development encroaches on farming, disruptive
  • satisfying demand for diverse populations i.e. low-income families don’t have access
    • cost
    • location
    • education
  • price point- living wage locally/ what customers can afford
  • is demand authentic?

We're a pretty convincing community forum, huh?

After seeing how much is NOT working with the current food system, we moved on to discussing (still in character, mind you!) what the known positives and potential concerns of a regional food hub might be:
  • connect to resources for new farmers
  • aggregation of local farms to one source
  • enhance economic resources for agriculture
  • centralizes distribution and collection
  • contributing local food system
  • we are “ready” to embrace it
  • marketing resource- communicating/reaching
  • value added goods- diversity products
  • equipment sharing
  • extends season
  • provides labor resources
  • provide facilities that individuals cant provide
  • year-round slaughtering capacity
  • expands to broaden farmers spectrum; rising viability
  • keeps kind in agriculture
  • creative ways to expand local economy (farm business incubator)
  • could provide insurance for consistent quality (pooling risk)
  • liability
  • more variety
  • cost to run?
    • who pays for it?
  • how distribution coordinated?
  • how to deal with waste?
    • use of energy?
    • environmental impact?
  • traffic
  • discourages development
  • would we lose identity and distinction of where products sourced from?
  • keep our products consistent?
  • licensing fee?
  • decision process for participation? standards?
  • differentiation of quality and price
  • effect on “competition” could go either way
  • effect of slaughterhouse on local environment
    • slaughterhouse not zoned
  • timeliness/seasonality (storage, freezer space, etc.)
  • maintain values of local farming? type of organization?
  • local law suits
  • how will define “local”?
  • whats too big/small for a farm to be involved?
  • can “we” afford it?

What a room full of characters!

Therefore, we came up with some general topics of issue/concern we all seemed to agree on…


  • zoning regulations- dont let them keep us from changing!
  • food security, quality, safety
  • insurance
  • liability
  • who will actually get this off the ground?
  • consistent quality control
  • economic risk: middleman good or bad?
  • recirculating funds
Walls littered with marked-up flip chart paper, the room buzzed with points and counterpoints. Collectively, there was an air of excitement, building with everyone’s enthusiastic engagement. However, a moment of perplexity- on how to move forward, seemed to suspend us all. Burt then briefly enlightened us about the “box of possibilities” metaphor for understanding the challenges presented before us. Within the box lie our viewpoints, attitudes, history, ethics, standards, laws, judgments, and beliefs. Outside the box is the space where what we know and what we want to know live. The edges of the box consist of what we can’t do, laws that bind us, and what we don’t know. Burt showed us how we can always expand the box, but we are ultimately always conscious of it and confined within it. Expanding this box, however, allows us to better understand what drives us and what simultaneously limits us and how we can deal with this dynamic. Thanks Burt for this inspirational perspective!
Virginia then took over, leading us through a debriefing session. She reminded us of the importance of communication and relationships between groups, organizations, and institutions. She cited the interconnectivity of young people within the food/farming industry as well as the inherent complexity of the issues discussed throughout the conference. Finally, Virginia left us with a few questions to take home:

What have you learned?

What has changed since you arrived here?

How do you get your generation involved?

Who doesn’t care? Who isn’t taking your courses/isn’t in your program?

How do we take our passion and get others in our generation involved and passionate?

Implement courses? field placements? through institutions?

How can Glynwood (vassar and other institutions) help?

Virginia, the debriefing diva!

We finished by filling out contact forms in order to keep in touch with Glynwood as well as the other conference attendees. Feeling utterly empowered, we were revved to utilize all of the potential this newfound network holds. Exchanging cell numbers and farewells, it was time to depart our temporary think-tank and forever friends (but not without a few last minute group pics!)

Emily, lounging in style

Enjoying the views at the lakehouse!

Alicia and Maddie soaking up some rays!

stuffed SUVS and sunny so-longs

Thanks, Glynwood for a spectacular weekend getaway chock full of yummy food, gorgeous scenery, energizing conversations, and inspiring people!

Food, farming, and new friends!

Smiling faces all around!