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.”

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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.

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Dinner with Professor Yu Zhou, followed by a day with David Pimentel

It was safe to say that the first week back from October break found us all more refreshed and ready for the second half of the semester. For that Wednesday night family dinner, we had Professor Yu Zhou (from the Geography department, with a focus in economic geography) joining us for a hot meal consisting of stir fried veggies with tofu and rice, as well as stir fried venison, and a bed of fresh salad on the side. As a house, this was our first time cooking venison (thanks to Alicia’s lovely uncle for giving us some) stir-fried with fresh veggies – and it was a hit! Our dinner conversation was slight hearted as we chatted a little about each of our fieldwork sites.

The conversation slowly drifted towards how we thought the quality of food should be an important factor during consumption, but for some, such as the Danish, that was just not their priority. Yu Zhou then brought up her research she conducted in China in relation to food consumption, and she questioned us how are we to create a food production system without the problems we see in the U.S? Considering the rate at which GDP and consumption patterns are growing in China, the way in which China decides to move forward will have a profound effect on the rest of the world. It was interesting to learn from Yu Zhou that there had been a CSA started in Beijing in 2002, called ‘Little Donkey Farm’, which had been met with great success. Since their opening, there has been an increase in the number of CSAs in Beijing – something that she felt proud to say. Towards the end of dinner, Yu Zhou commended on the dishes that were cooked and wished us well for the second half of the semester!

Professor Yu Zhou

Professor Yu Zhou

The next day, we spent the good part of the day with David Pimentel, who is a professor of entomology at Cornell University. Over the years, he has published in a number of different scientific journals and was the very first person to publish an article on the ethanol industry. David Pimentel also chairs an advisory committee that looks at ethanol as a gasoline alternative for the US secretary of Energy. His vast knowledge on such issues has strengthened the committee’s main conclusion: ethanol requires more energy to produce than it delivers. During our morning classes, we spent a good amount of time talking to him about his thoughts on the ethanol industry as well as how he used a multi-disciplinary framework to draw from to tackle the issues surrounding the ethanol industry. David Pimentel actually started his own ‘MLLC’ in Cornell called the ‘National Academy Committee’ whereby students came together, and drew upon interdisciplinary frameworks to research issues surrounding energy and agriculture that were published in different scientific journals.

David Pimentel stressed that it was important to “read everything that is in the literature”, as that is where the wealth of information can be found and the “science does not lie”. Over the years, Pimentel has become and increasingly controversial figure, and has been the target of many critics. But is was refreshing to see that this man, who has come under heavy scrutiny and is the target of many unnecessary comments, can still sit there with a smile on his face, and continues to be passionate in publishing information to the public for our own benefit.

David Pimentel at Vassar College

David Pimentel at Vassar College

The pizza lunch that followed brought more of the Vassar community into conversation surrounding the production of ethanol from food crops. David Pimentel highlighted that according to the UN, 66% of the world population is malnourished, and thus the ethanol industry is contributing to world starvation as food is being redirected away from these people. We discussed the unhealthy consumption habits around the world that continues to grow, and David Pimentel also made clear that he thought our world population size was also just too big to be supported by one planet earth.

After lunch, we took a short break and the MLLC brought Pimentel for a breath of fresh air at Peach Hill – a beautiful public parkland in Poughkeepsie that is also the highest point in the Town of Poughkeepsie! Shortly after that, we all re-congregated in the CCMPR for David Pimentel’s lecture on biofuel production, followed by a short Q&A. The day seemed to have zipped by fast, and we soon found ourselves exchanging our thanks and goodbyes (but we managed to snap a quick group picture as he wished us well for the upcoming second half of fall semester)!

The MLLC with David Pimentel!

The MLLC with David Pimentel!

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Alumnae/i Food Conference

Lee Zalben ’95

The Peanut Butter Guy: founder of Peanut Butter & Co. Mr. Zalben came prepared with a presentation he called “The Origins of the New Foodie Movement”. It was a talk about where he saw the “foodie” term and mentalities come from. He was preceeded by people telling personal stories how they got started in the business, history of what they had done in the field, and who gave some advice to current students. He got a laugh out of the crowd when he said that he felt like the student who came to class realizing that he didn’t understand the assignment. Even though Mr. Zalben’s talk was different than the rest, it was still entertaining and comical. At the end, everyone present received a jar of peanut butter and a fashionable “Dark Chocolate Dreams” tote.

Patrick Martins ’94

Mr. Martins was probably the most entertaining speaker. He was very animated and had a distinct speech pattern that was pleasing to my ear. Mr. Martins founded Slow Food USA after working in Italy with the founder of Slow Food International. Mr. Martins was president of Slow Food USA for several years before he moved to his current position at Heritage Foods USA. Heritage Foods USA works with farmers who grow heritage breeds of meats and sells them to chefs and consumers across the country. Heritage Foods also runs a radio station out of Brooklyn with lots of listeners. Mr. Martins brought up some interesting ideas such as the cost of good food. He defended the high prices of the products he sells because of their high quality. He also spoke of how local was never in the equation of Slow Food. An esteemed product from the other side of the country (or even world) is more highly valued than a local product of mediocre quality. Another idea that was brought up was the idea of a break-even business. Martins sees a beauty in this, in not being wealthy, and in struggling, but enjoying life.

Helen Nicholas ’71

Ms. Nicholas, along with her husband, started Royal Coffee in 1978. Royal Coffee imports “green” (eco-friendly) coffee and sells it to roasters. Ms. Nicholas had much to tell us about the entrepreneurial spirit, sticktoitiveness, and hard work. Ms. Nicholas came from humble beginnings and was able to attend Vassar on a scholarship. She was a literature major and truly enjoyed the community of people at school. After graduating from Vassar, she and her husband started their business and bought their first bag of coffee with a credit card. They grew their business one bag of coffee at a time. They were conscious of money management and would invest in the company at every opportunity. Her advice to us was “pay the bills before you pay yourself”. She sees people who run businesses instead use their business as an ATM and just take money out of the till. By investing money back into her business, Ms. Nicholas now imports one percent of coffee in the world and has new roasters calling her every day.

Maura Schorr Beaufait ’06

Ms. Schorr is the Healthy Food Access Coordinator for Food in the ‘Hood in the Bowdoin-Geneva neighborhood of Boston. She had previously worked with the Cornell Cooperative Extension through the Green Teen Beacon community garden program. There, the students learned to see food as part of a nutritious and healthy lifestyle and as a potential mechanism for social change. She also worked at the Tufts-Friedman School of Nutritional Science where she coordinated environmental programs.

Carrie Blackburn ’08

Ms. Blackburn worked at the Poughkeepsie Farm Project and an organic farm in Costa Rica before working with Just Food. Just Food “connects communities and local farms with the resources and support they need to make fresh, locally grown food accessible to all New Yorkers. Just Food provides regional farmers and food producers, CSA organizers and everyday eaters with the resources and support they need to establish and experience healthy food systems—in every neighborhood.”

Robin Burger ’06

Hot Bread Kitchen is a place where foreign-born and low-income women and men can learn skills to become bakers. Ms. Burger works here and shared a bit about the organization, along with a lovely slideshow. The people who come into Hot Bread Kitchen are able to leave and start their own bakery or work in the culinary industry. Hot Bread Kitchen also offers English classes during the day. Still, the bakers are able to make the breads of their homelands, preserving their culture and introducing it to New York City.

Valerie Linet ’98

At Vassar, Ms. Linet studied English and creative writing. She spent time working at Phillies Bridge before going to graduate school to become a trauma therapist. After spending some time working in Poughkeepsie, she went to spend two years at a Zen Buddhist monastery. She spoke of silence and sitting in silence. Everyone was given a job at the monastery and her job was to take care of the garden. This garden had an aspect of self-efficiency because there were times during the summer when everyone in the monastery would be sitting in silence for the majority of the day and wouldn’t be able to tend to the plants. She saw a different aspect of gardening here, where farming was seen as a spiritual practice or spiritual training or a place for healing instead of a place of food production.

Abby Kinchy ’96

Ms. Kinchy, author of the book Seeds, Science, and Struggle: The Global Politics of Transgenic Crops spoke about agriculture, genetic engineering, and social justice. She is a sociologist who did graduate school at the University of Wisconsin. She talked about the green revolution and different political struggles around the world, surrounded by things like Roundup Ready® crops.

Lynn Mordas ’77

Ms. Mordas, who runs Dashing Star Farm, gave a short talk about business, the economy, finance, and human interactions. Dashing Star Farm is a family-run sheep farm that sells lambs, wool, sheepskins, and value-added wool products.

Erika Rumbley ’07

Ms. Rumbley was and environmental studies major at Vassar. Her final project for the department was the Poughkeepsie Community Feast. Many people all ate local food together at a long string of tables in a green space in town. She wanted to build pride and value in the Poughkeepsie food system. She now works with community gardens in Boston. She shared some of the strategies that were implemented to maintain the community garden there.

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Vassar’s Inaugural Conference on Food and Agriculture

The hugely anticipated weekend of the Inaugural Conference on Food and Agriculture kicked off in style on a brisk Friday Evening, Friday Oct 5th, at the Aula. Everyone in attendance (faculty, MLLC students and faculty, administrators, and of course our lovely Alums) was in high spirits! There was a palpable energy in the room from the get go. Food is a hot topic. One we all shared a common interest and passion for. It was not long before this energy was harnessed in many conversations, presentations, ideas, and experiences that would mark this weekend a grand success.

And what better way to start off than with the notable keynote speaker, Florence (Flo) Reed? Following personal remarks from Dean Chennette, detailing his personal connection to food growing up and as a musician, Flo took the stage. Florence Reed is a Woodrow Wilson visiting Fellow. This means that she travels across the United States engaging in substantive dialogues with students and faculty members; through her week-long stay here at Vassar, Flo engaged in a variety of classes (including MLLC’s geography class!), seminars, workshops, lectures, and informal discussions. We felt so honored to get to spend this valuable time with her, particularly being able to host Flo and Susan Grove (from the Poughkeepsie Farm Project). Flo has aways believed that people working together can lead to change. It was this attitude that motivated her to serve as a Peace Corps volunteer in Panama. During her time in rural Central America, Flo became increasingly aware of the prolific ‘Slash-and-burn’ farming methods implemented, and of the many negative ramifications for the environment as well as for the well-being of the farmers. She even noted that the farmers themselves did not want to be using these methods. Therefore, Flo saw a crucial need for education about alternative agricultural practices, and when she found that no such organization existed, she founded Sustainable Harvest International. Sustainable Harvest International (SHI) is a nonprofit organization dedicated to working with rural Central American communities to implement sustainable farming practices. Her organization has flourished and helped many people harvest their own food is a sustainable manner, but Flo insists that the most significant affect SHI has had is empowering people to grow their own food and to be able to provide a more healthy and balanced diet for their family.

After a lovely reception with a delicious spread of hors d’oeuvres and assorted beverages, the Alums were dispersed among different groups of students with interests in food and treated to dinner. The MLLC house was proud to host Rebecca Roseman (’10), Eric Berngause (’80), and Robin Burger (’06) for a delicious mediterranean dinner from Zorona’s.

Saturday morning the conference switched into full-gear once everyone gathered again at the Aula at 10:00 AM. Another beautiful day and the level of energy and excitement was only increasing! The day would be divided into 4 Panels, each including 3 Alums who gave a condensed presentation of their diverse journeys with food.

The first Panel, entitled: International, Conventional, and Slow(er) Foods got the ball rolling. First up was the sweet and eloquent Rebecca Roseman (’10), who is an M.A. candiate in Food Systems at New York University, in NYC. Rebecca it seems, was on path that included thinking about food critically since high school. The food for her was always chocolate. It was then that her quest to finding “good to think, good to eat chocolate” embarked. This passion was carried through her Vassar career, spending her junior year as a Pastry chef, teaching ‘Death by Chocolate’- a mini-course series, writing numerous papers, and conducting extensive research. Her senior thesis, not surprisingly, was “Conscientious Chocolate: How to produce good to think, good to eat chocolate?”. This passion for chocolate has take Rebecca to Belize, to intern at Taza in the summertime, and now to continue research in fair-trade chocolate, and as an intern at Cisse Trading Co. (a maker of Fair Trade cocoa and baking mixes).

Next up was Justin Leavenworth (’96), who walked an entirely different path. At Vassar, Justin studied Cultural Anthropology and spent a lot of time questioning the fragmentation between department lines and different perspectives. After college Justin was the President of Campbell Soup in Mexico, then worked at his father’s Inlingua Franchise Co. mainly in language training. Justin then decided to start her own company called Global Arena helping people who wanted to be in business get started, participating in cross-cultural counseling. Eventually, Justin started his own Rancher’s Cooperative with the goal of creating economic reward for treating cows ethically and educating farmers about the cows’ value.

Eric Bernigause (’80) stepped up up to the microphone next. He opted to showcase his career path with a video presentation. He was a double major at Vassar in anthropology and sociology. He worked in a numerous large corporations including the National Park Service, IBM, Nestle, Nabisco, Kraft Foods, Pillsbury-Green Grant management. Many of these jobs toom Eric overseas and provided him with valuable experiences. Eric now works at Advanced H2O. LLC, and graciously provided ‘Vassar Smart Water’ and ‘Cappy Iced Tea’ as refreshments throughout the conference! The humorous thought was greatly appreciated!

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Four Fish by Paul Greenberg

And into the third week we go! This week was a rather busy one, and you could most definitely feel a theme running through it: Four Fish and Paul Greenberg. We had organized a couple of different activities for the week to discuss the book and the surrounding issues that it brought up.

Four Fish by Paul Greenberg

As one of our activities, we had organized a discussion with the freshman in their dorms for Tuesday evening – and put in a lot of prep time. Unfortunately not many freshman showed up despite our efforts to lure them to come with snacks consisting of Goldfish. However, this did not dampen our moods as at least one of us got a discussion going in Cushing; and we now have a stash of Goldfish sitting in our kitchen.

When Thursday swung by, there was excitement in the air for what was ahead: there were plans for Paul Greenberg to come to Vassar to have a discussion with us, and then for him to speak at a lecture in the Villard room, followed by a reception and dinner at the Alumnae House. Having spent a good 6 hours with him, it is safe to say he is a really humorous intellectual who is a captivating speaker and an engaging man. We were quite surprised but how much he spoke about journalism and publishing during our discussion before the lecture, and it was interesting to hear what he had to say about the writing industry. Paul Greenberg said that currently people are not interested in hearing the ‘gloom and doom stories’, but are looking for a more hopeful future – which is why in his book he recommends us looking into CSF (Community Supported Fishing – vs. CSAgriculture).

Four Fish Lecture

Four Fish for dinner!

During his lecture, Paul Greenberg spoke about the importance of respecting the fishermen, and really listening to them as they are the ones who are actually out there fishing and understand the dynamic relationship between us and the fish. He also shed light upon the ITQ (international transfer quotas), as well as the privatization of fisheries and their efforts in trying to replenish wild fish stocks. Paul Greenberg also stressed that the key to a well managed fishery is in limiting entry, to ensure that fish stocks were not being overfished either.

The reception and dinner that followed after the lecture was held in the Alumnae House. Paul Greenberg commented that he was both surprised and impressed with what was served – four fish! The kitchens made the effort to source that nights produce in the 250 mile radius, which we enjoyed over light-hearted conversation, and got to know fellow professors and other school administratives.

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