College and Community Life
Kenyon’s local food initiative, Food for Thought, addresses the needs and interests of the local community while advancing Kenyon’s educational mission. It provides teaching opportunities for our faculty, and promotes diversity by encouraging students from urban and suburban areas to interact with rural culture. Our local food program also serves as a promotional tool for college admissions, as it distinguishes us from similar small liberal arts colleges. Furthermore, it improves the college’s relationships with community members who are not affiliated with the college. Local food education is absolutely critical for the success of any farm-to-college system. Our local foods initiative is intimately tied to the larger educational mission of the college, as expressed through the curricular, co-curricular, and the residential life at Kenyon.
As an institution, Kenyon has integrated a great deal of local foods education into our academic curriculum. Ten percent of our faculty teaches courses in nearly every academic department dealing with food, agriculture, or rural life. One of the hardest courses to get into at Kenyon is “Sustainable Agriculture” in the environmental studies department. This intensive fieldwork course provides students with hands-on experience at local farms and places of agricultural significance within our community, which is supplemented with current literature and participation in small seminar discussion groups. Another course, “Anthropology of Food,” examines the roles of food and agriculture in society from a cross-cultural perspective. Kenyon also offers a biology course on animal behavior in which students observe and quantify the behavior of animals by visiting various sustainable farms in our surrounding region. There is even photography course that seeks to document rural food culture and politics, and a course offered by our Religious Studies department that devotes a section of coursework to the discussion of Wendell Berry, a writer, farmer, and activist, as a great American prophet.
In addition to courses offered during the academic year, the college has implemented a unique summer opportunity that provides students with exposure to the agriculture of our local region. Kenyon runs a joint program with the Ohio Ecological Food & Farm Association (OEFFA) that allows students to take a minimum of three relevant courses at Kenyon and then spend the summer participating in a 10-week paid internship on a sustainable farm. When they have cultivated the skills and practical knowledge regarding our local farming and food systems, students receive a certificate in ecological agriculture from OEFFA. This program began out of OEFFA’s interest in generating enthusiasm for farming among young people. The idea was to combine academic work and active farm internships at small colleges throughout Ohio; the Kenyon initiative served as a pilot. We’re now working with OEFFA to introduce this program into other small colleges across the state.
Kenyon’s local food system is also supported extracurricularly by our student body. People Endorsing Agrarian Sustainability (PEAS) is one of the largest student organizations on campus. PEAS’ primary goals are to spread awareness of local food throughout the student body and to provide a link between Kenyon students and members of our surrounding agricultural community. Members of PEAS meet regularly with food service staff to advocate for local foods in the dining hall and to help the food service staff with local food signage and other means of educating their peers. PEAS also brings large groups of students on organized tours of area farms, and it has a system whereby smaller groups of students can sign up to work regularly with farmers.
PEAS members also put on local food brunches each semester that attract over one hundred students and members of the faculty. The students acquire the food for these brunches by forming connections with many of the farmers in our surrounding region. The local food brunches give PEAS members the opportunity to experience the intricacies of a farm-to-college system, and they help to spread awareness to the college community of the institution’s broader efforts in supporting local farmers. The brunch itself serves as a vehicle to spark student discussion and awareness, and PEAS provides clear and detailed information about the foods served and the farms from which they come. By providing a link between the students and the farmers of our community, PEAS facilitates critical student involvement and awareness in various steps of Kenyon’s farm-to-college process.
Our campus-wide local foods initiative has also spread into the residential life of the college. A student Housing and Dining Committee meets weekly to examine the various residential issues of the college, which often include matters concerning Kenyon’s local food system. When Kenyon’s contract with AVI comes up for renewal, members of the Housing and Dining Committee provide Kenyon’s administration with input in the revision of the contract.
Theme-housing options surrounding the common interest of local foods and agricultural sustainability are now available to students. Several students now live in a food co-op, which cooks Saturday morning local food brunches and Saturday evening local food dinners that are open to all members of the Kenyon community. In order to obtain food for their meals, Kenyon’s food co-op forms connections with farmers of our local agricultural community, and they also receive a weekly CSA share. PEAS shares residential housing with the environmental group on campus, and they hope to develop a fully sustainable homestead at some point in the future.
Some might argue that having a college farm would build residential support for Kenyon’s local food system. Other emerging leaders in the farm-to-college movement such as UC Santa Cruz, and the University of Vermont have campus farms where students cultivate a portion of the food served in their dining halls. For institutions with few farms in their surrounding region, this can be a great way to educate students and to get local foods into the dining hall. Kenyon, however, does not currently have a campus farm. We keep a small herb garden behind the dining hall, from which most of the basil to make our pesto is grown. There is another small garden at the elementary school just down the street from the college, where Kenyon students work to teach young children the basics of food cultivation and sustainability.
We are quite fortunate that our local food system has the ongoing, active support of the college’s senior administration and the board of trustees. Yet another key in the success of these kinds of initiatives is having enthusiastic interest and support from the student body. At Kenyon, the support and interest of the student body has grown exponentially in the past decade, as seen by the unprecedented student enthusiasm for academic courses relating to food and agriculture, and the growing number of members in PEAS. Student support of our local food system is visible everywhere, from the signage and posters throughout our dining hall, to the opinion’s section of our school newspaper, to the emails received by the entire student body. Yet it is still a continuous challenge to educate the students about the sources of food in the dining hall, and the benefits of supporting local for themselves and for the rest of their community.