|Professor Marion Field Fass (biology), Adama Loos Diallo’11 (left), and Nicole Helregel’11 polish their presentation about Beloit’s Slow Food course before speaking on Capitol Hill.
Last summer, Elizabeth Makarewicz’11 had a lot to think about as she planned for her new life at Beloit, but the entering first-year student from Sedalia, Mo., barely deliberated over which First-Year Initiatives (FYI) seminar to take.
Coming from a nuclear family of cooks and food lovers, and appreciating the rich influence of her grandparents’ German and Polish food heritage, she followed her instincts and registered for a course about slow food.
The surprise came when she arrived on campus and met her instructor, Professor of Biology Marion Field Fass.
“When I learned that Marion was a science professor, I was actually a little worried,” confides Makarewicz. “I’m not a big science person.”
But students like Makarewicz, a Spanish and creative writing major, are exactly the kind Fass was seeking for the interdisciplinary course, commonly known as an FYI.
“I wanted to do an FYI course that was science-related but wasn’t as biomedical as mine usually are, because I wanted to attract a different group of students,” says Fass, who created and taught the seminar in 2005 and 2007 and may offer it again at some point in the future.
The Slow Food course looks at the connections between food and culture, food and sustainability, and food and social justice, and considers eating habits and the impact they have on health and the global food supply.
The subject is framed by the Slow Food movement, which started in Italy in 1989. The antithesis to the frantic pace of contemporary life and the fast food that feeds it, the Slow Food member-supported organization features a snail as its logo and works to preserve the pleasure of diverse local foods and culinary traditions. Its Web site, slowfood.com, talks about a different kind of food system, one that “values high quality and taste, environmental sustainability, and social justice: in essence, a food system that is good, clean, and fair.”
The Slow Food seminar at Beloit was selected by Science Education for New Civic Engagements and Responsibilities (SENCER) as a model course for its linkage of science and civic issues. SENCER is a faculty development and science education reform program supported by the National Science Foundation. This spring, the SENCER recognition led to an invitation for Fass and two of her Slow Food students, Adama Loos Diallo’11 (Portland, Ore.) and Nicole Helregel’11 (St. Joseph, Ill.) to come to Capitol Hill where they and representatives from 27 other colleges and universities discussed the importance of science education.
While her course attracted this kind of national attention, Fass is quick to sing the praises of the many other Beloit faculty members who are adept at engaging students with civic issues that have a scientific underpinning. “There has been a real commitment here to teach science in a way that our students can see its applications,” says Fass.
She cites Kohnstamm Professor of Chemistry Brock Spencer’s interdisciplinary course on Sustainable Buildings, which brought students into the mix while the Center for the Sciences green building was being planned, and Professor of Biology Yaffa Grossman’s course that considered the campus itself as an ecosystem. After the Center for the Sciences opens, Spencer and Robin Greenler, the sustainability coordinator for the center, will team-teach an environmental studies course called “Buildings as Teachers.” It will produce models and materials relating the design, construction, operation, use, and interpretation of the new building to its built and natural environment.
Sign me up
Beloit’s FYI seminars are designed to be small, one-of-a-kind courses that examine their subjects through the lens of multiple academic disciplines. Topics in the Slow Food course have the added distinction of being ripped straight from the headlines. Recent wheat and rice shortages worldwide, rising food costs, and an epidemic of obesity in the United States are all pressing issues involving food.
Fass, whose doctorate is in public health, says she has always been interested in the ecological considerations of food and describes the seminar as “a nutrition course turned inside out.”
“It teaches some of the same things that you would teach in nutrition, but rather than looking at food and its effect on our body, it’s looking at food and its effect on the environment and our food system,” she says. “So it’s kind of a big picture of looking at food. Public health sneaked in. Biology and ecology and agriculture sneaked in. But slow food gave us a way to contextualize and look at optimistic solutions.”
For her part, Makarewicz says she knew a little bit about slow food going in. “Before the class, I just knew what the Slow Food movement was about, but I really didn’t understand why it was important,” she says. “Marion’s class really highlighted the sustainability issue and the public health issues that are related to food.”
Helregel expects to major in history and says she was attracted to the course because it mixed agriculture with politics and ethics—all subjects of interest. Plus, the issues it raised are near and dear: Half her family is engaged in farming. “When I came home this summer, my family was really annoyed because I kept saying, ‘Go to the farmer’s market. Don’t go to Wal-Mart. Don’t buy this or that food item,’” she says. “Our class actually talked about this as a group at the end of the course. It changed the way all of us look at a lot of things.”
The primary text for the class was The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan. The award-winning account of where food comes from and why it matters has also been selected as the 2008 common reading text for all new students at Beloit.
|Marion Field Fass
|Students in a course about slow food visit Kinnikinnick Farm. The class has received accolades for the way it links science with civic issues.
Beyond the text, students in the Slow Food class visited farms and farmer’s markets and heard from relevant visiting speakers. A visit to Angelic Organics in Caledonia, Ill., was a highlight for some. The farm, operated by alumnus John Peterson’72, was the first place Nick Abraham’11 (Barrow, Alaska) had ever seen corn and pumpkins growing.
The Saturday farmer’s market in Beloit provided a ready public service project. Students surveyed about 120 patrons over a couple of consecutive weekends about their shopping habits, then analyzed data and presented it to the Downtown Beloit Association, which organizes the market. Results of the survey revealed more age diversity among patrons than what was previously known and also uncovered a preference for local produce over organic produce. The Downtown Beloit Association took the results seriously and went about recruiting more local producers and more vendors that would appeal to college-aged shoppers.
Students in the course also studied the Food and Farm bill that was up for reauthorization in Congress last fall. They wrote letters asking their elected representatives to support issues in the bill they felt were important.
And they walked the talk when they were invited to Fass’ home twice for dinners they prepared from scratch, using fresh, local ingredients from the Saturday market. Students split into two groups and took turns cooking, but everyone in the class came to eat. “We had lots and lots of vegetables,” says Fass. “So we had roasted vegetables, and some of the students wanted to make eggplant parmagiana, so they sliced and breaded and fried.” Fass also realized she had to teach students how to “dissect” a whole local chicken into serving pieces because “nobody ever sees a whole chicken anymore.” For dessert, they made apple crisp. “It was the best meal we had all semester,” says Makarewicz, the excitement bubbling up in her voice.
In the hope of extending that kind of experience to the rest of the College, Makarewicz and classmate Drew Clark’11 (Ann Arbor, Mich.) will start a Slow Food chapter on campus this fall. This summer, Clark is gathering relevant experience working on an organic farm in Germany, while Makarewicz is completing an internship with a Slow Food chapter in Portland, Ore., where she is documenting food traditions around the Pacific Northwest. One of their goals back at Beloit is to start a tradition of Sunday night dinners, cooked by students and made with local ingredients.
Putting it into practice
Discussions from the Slow Food courses spilled out of the classroom and into the public square at Beloit, especially when students issued “eat local” challenges for a week in September. Members of the campus community were encouraged to spend at least 10 percent of their food budget on items grown or produced locally.
Campus Director of Food Services Peter Kraemer’89 supported the challenge by offering a day of 100 percent local food options in Commons last fall. “We served chicken, potatoes, beef, veggies. The students loved it, but I don’t think they fully grasp the cost,” he says.
Kraemer is a realist when it comes to the often higher price of locally produced food as compared to other wholesale foods, especially in light of escalating prices overall and given the scale of his operation. He serves about 900 meals each day.
Another challenge to serving local food on campus is the timing. “One of our biggest problems is that the growing season in Wisconsin is ending just as students are returning to campus, and it’s starting just as they’re leaving for summer,” he says.
According to Kraemer, going entirely local would be impossible in the face of current budget constraints or without a farm devoted solely to supplying Beloit’s demand for food (as some colleges are doing). But he does what he can, including driving to a nearby farm one wintry night last fall on the invitation of one local farmer. It started snowing as Kraemer filled his pickup truck with a glut of acorn and butternut squash that otherwise would have frozen in the field. Kitchen staff flash-froze the squash, and it lasted all semester.
|From left: Professor of Biology Marion Field Fass, U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin, Nicole Helregel’11 and Adama Loos Diallo’11 gather on Capitol Hill after Fass, Helregel, and Diallo’s presentation about the award-winning Slow Food course at Beloit.
Kraemer’s other efforts to bring local items to the table may be small, but they are genuine. Consider his enthusiasm about the young tomato plants growing in the Commons dining room windows last May, or the peppers that were sprouting in a small kitchen garden planted by a student club, or his plans for an additional vegetable garden he carved out in a sunny spot west of Commons. All are labor-intensive, but he seems to take them in stride.
Kraemer waves off a question about who’s responsible for watering, weeding, and harvesting these small operations. Not a big deal, he says, while sizing up the rows of vegetable plants in the student plot. He pulls a tiny radish out of the ground and sniffs it. “It smells like a radish,” he says. He smiles as he begins talking about the ways he could use fresh radish greens in Commons’ kitchen.