Professors, Pathogens and a Coop Thanksgiving

It’s hard to believe that it’s already the beginning of December; final projects and papers have breached the horizon and loom nearer and nearer every day. The not-so-distant close of the 2012 MLLC program prompts the nine of us to think more and more deeply about what we have learned and accomplished, and what this program has meant to us.

Less than three weeks before the end of the semester, we (the stellar members of the Coop) spent the week hosting and participating in numerous events as per usual.

Dining With Carol Christensen

On Wednesday evening we entertained Professor Carol Christensen from the Psychology department (or rather, she entertained us). Like the other professors we have cooked for this semester, Carol brought to us her own unique perspective on food. We began by discussing the importance of proper nutrition as a component of a healthy lifestyle and how it translates into a healthy brain. As busy, often overstretched students we can neglect or fail to prioritize the most important parts of everyday life: good food, exercise, sleep and at least one method of stress reduction.

Professor Christensen posed two questions to us that night: first, she asked whether we felt it was true that it is impossible to go through a semester without being sleep deprived for at least some of it (a statement on of her psychology classes had agreed was accurate). Some of us felt that it was not impossible but certainly a great feat, while others nodded solemnly around the table.

Second, she asked us to share about how many nights a week we “did things” (attended meetings, clubs, regular activities; nights we didn’t spend relaxing, studying or socializing). Our responses varied between “two or three” and “five or six.”

So, we’re busy. How do we manage everything? Do we take time to unwind and de-stress? What can we do to reduce stress and maintain healthy, positive lifestyles?

From a physiological standpoint, one of the most important things to pay attention to in order to stay healthy is the food we put into our bodies. Our conversations touched on various diets from vegetarianism and veganism to the Paleo diet, the Furman diet (nine to ten servings of fruits and veggies a day to give you plenty of micronutrients, which Carol said, as she helped herself to another serving of salad, she tries to follow), to caloric restriction with adequate nutrition (eating the bare minimum of necessary calories to survive while still getting enough nutrients, a diet that studies have shown enhances lifestyle in all of the tried organisms), fasting, the antioxidant theory of aging, and how cancers and autoimmune diseases can be dealt with nutritionally.

Michael Starnbach’s Visit

Our featured visitor this week was Michael Starnbach from the Department of Microbiology and Immunobiology at Harvard University. A food enthusiast and esteemed biologist, Michael had a lot to teach us about food safety and public health.

Dr. Starnbach’s expertise lies in micro-organisms, and he dedicated our Thursday morning class to teaching us about the most common microbial pathogens in food and their mechanisms of infection and reproduction once they enter our bodies, including Salmonella euterica, norovirus (or the “stomach flu”), Camplobacter jejuni, Listeria monocytogenes and other causes of food poisoning. We learned about how public health and food safety regulations work to eliminate, contain and control outbreaks through pasteurization, sanitization and other methods, and why babies shouldn’t be fed honey within the first few years after birth because of their immune systems’ vulnerability to soil bacterium spores that bees can pick up when they collect pollen.

We transitioned from the classroom to the lab with Michael and enjoyed a meal he had prepared for us using controlled temperature cooking (salmon, lamb, cauliflower, and a whole host of other delicious treats!) while he told us all about the chemistry of cooking meat and shared some of his own favorite cooking tricks, including the recipe for his favorite mixed drink (my lips are sealed).

Dr. Starnbach’s lecture that evening was well-attended and further demonstrated his very relatable manner of explaining complex ideas and jovial, easy-going personality. After an in-depth discussion of diseases, their mechanisms, their role in the world and how we have learned to deal with them, Starnbach left us with three take-homes:

  • Reduction of childhood morbidity and mortality from diarrheal diseases requires improvement in water delivery and sanitation,
  • Vaccines are the only permanent solution to fight many of these organisms, and
  • Universal compliance with vaccine programs is necessary for protection of communities and ultimate elimination of the pathogen.
Dr. Starnbach’s visit helped inform yet another perspective on food for us. And by the end of the week we were ready to cook up a storm. We’d been planning our house Thanksgiving since early November, and on Sunday we gathered for a truly cooperative-style family meal, a Coop Thanksgiving, sharing and feeling deeply thankful for each other and the opportunity to learn and grow together this year.


CIA Sustainability Conference (Highlights)

Sunday, September 23rd — A Day at the CIA! (Culinary Institute of America, Hyde Park, NY)


On Sunday the Coop piled into the Vassar Van and hit the road to the CIA in Hyde Park, about a half hour’s drive from our house in the Vassar Town Houses, for an exciting day of food and sustainability-related events. The early fall weather could not have been more perfect and those of us who had never been to the CIA campus before fell in love with the picturesque lawns, fountains and gazebos that overlooked the Hudson River, which directly borders the western side of campus.

Korean pumpkin soup

Our first destination when we arrived at 10:00 AM was the Farmer’s Market tent, where we were served Korean breakfast (sweet pumpkin soup with egg and toasted pumpkin seeds) and coffee (the CIA’s unique chef’s blend supplied by Chris’s Coffee Roasters). Local vendors were just setting up their booths, selling kitchen tools, t-shirts, market bags, fresh produce and value-added products. We enjoyed tasty treats and enjoyed learning about products from Ronny Brook DairyMeadow View FarmButcher and Baker, Movable Beasts MeatsJulie’s JamsSprout Creek Cheese FarmQueen’s Galley and the CIA Beverage and Fair Trade Clubs.

Peach spice, tomato, blackberry and applebutter jams!



















After filling up on delicious samples we moved on to tour the kitchen where four teams of CIA students were just beginning to prepare lunch. One of the major events of the day was the School Lunch Competition, where four teams of four CIA students each would prepare a meal that modeled what could be served in a school cafeteria for $2.20 per plate. The teams each had worked in advance to prepare their menus and procure their ingredients, and had four hours (10:00 that morning until 2:00 that afternoon) to prepare their meals for the tasting, in which they would be judged by a panel of all ages.

While touring the kitchen, we learned that the teams had to gather all the nutritional facts for the foods they prepared and quantify the caloric, protein, carbohydrate, sugar, fat, and vitamin (among others) content.

At 2:00 we got to sample the finished products.

The four menus:

  • roasted apples with ground pork and walnuts, kale chips and baked potato crisps
  • chicken and cheese quesadillas with corn and bean salad
  • beef and vegetable wraps, sweet potato balls, and fresh fruit and mint jello
  • tacos (peach salsa, beef, guacamole, corn, radish and kale)

The judges had a touch decision to make, but the quesadillas won the show!

The Winning Dish

There were plenty of kids around, eating, playing, judging, and helping us keep in mind what the School Lunch Competition was really about.





The focus on school lunches really got us thinking more deeply about how poor the nutritional value of most food provided by school lunch programs in America really are, and the larger issue of good nutritional education. This was a major focus of the conference, and the topic of discussion of the Community Roundtable forum, another of the events that day.

The Community Roundtable Panel: “Teaching Good Food Through School Education”

The purpose of the panel was to create a discussion around the issue of food and nutrition education in schools, and a space in which all who attended (there was a wide range of people, from CIA and us Vassar students to interested community members) could learn and ask questions. Perhaps the most inspiring part of the panel was when each of the members shared their visions:

Tim Cipriano, Director of Food Services for the Guilford school district: Tim expressed his vision that “school meals [would] be the point where healthy food and hungry kids meet.” He says, “let’s put our resources into feeding our kids food that’s real!” Some of his ideas were more salad bars in cafeterias (with no fruit, mayo-based dressings, croutons or chicken), school gardens (which would supply the salad bars), sourcing local farms, composting, and bringing chefs into classrooms to do demonstrations and get kids excited about food. In his experience, “you know you’ve done something right” when you get “kids seven, eight years old describing the flavor of a tomato.”

Diane Reeder, Executive Director at the Queen’s Galley: Diane would like to see everyone have “access to food. Real food.” That’s her vision for the future; “more affordable access and opportunities to that food to low income families, seniors …” and thinks it’s important that everyone is able to learn how to store, prepare and preserve food, as well as wanting to bring kids into the kitchens in schools and teaching them these things.

Ann Cooper, Director of Nutritional Services in Boulder, CO, “Renegade Lunch Lady”: She says, “it should be a birthright in our country that every kid should have access to healthy, delicious food in school … If we don’t understand that this is the crisis of our world … If we don’t understand that it’s only us, that we have to change it … it isn’t going to happen.” And, Ann stressed, it’s important for everyone to participate in the school lunch program.

Janet Poppendieck, author of “Free for All” and recipient of the James Byrne Award, says that we need to “change the structure of how we pay for our meals,” and “need to make school food part of education.” Lunch in schools needs to be free, “even for rich kids;” it should be the norm to eat the school lunch, and we have to “get rid of the stigma.”

Marydale Debor, Managing director at Fresh Advantage: Marydale’s vision is that “food will be placed at the center of healthcare.” She believes that good health begins with good food, and that “not just chefs … [but] teachers, healers, advocates, and community leaders” can be agents of change.

Susan Grove, Executive Director at the Poughkeepsie Farm Project: Susan wants to “make sure that everyone in our city can have healthy and nutritious food,” and believes it’s important that “the whole food system is centered around the nourishment of human beings,” not around making profit. She says we have to change the environment, and provide the education; that 26.8% of Poughkeepsie is food insecure, 47% is obese.

So, what are our “practical next steps?” moderator Nicci Nashban Cagan, director of “From the Ground Up” asked. Here are some of the things that came up:

  • How can we engage in our food system?
  • Who do we go to?
  • Is it better to run on a deficit and provide healthier food in schools, or stick to the budget and provide low-quality foods?
  • How can we as a nation afford to feed our kids better food?
  • How can you tell one kid that they can have school lunch, and another that they can’t?
  • We need to make it clear that applying for SNAP is responsible parenting.

We left the panel discussion with our problem-solving gears grinding and a more passionate stance on food in schools.

The remainder of the conference proved to be lighter on the discussion side but heavier in other ways. We had yet another delicious and plentiful meal at the afternoon pig roast and beer tasting, and returned home tired and well nourished, in mind and in body.

Brainstorming local producers with CIA and Vassar Slow Food

The 15-minute chicken coop construction demo