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!