The Common Good
May 2006

Food for Thought

by Steve Thorngate | May 2006

At St. Olaf, students learn to reap what they sow.

Day Burtness and Dan Borek hoped to start an organic farm and community-supported agriculture program at St. Olaf College. But Northfield, Minnesota—a small, two-college town 35 miles south of Minneapolis-St. Paul—was already served by multiple CSAs and a food co-op. School officials were supportive but skeptical that a student-run farm would find any real market, even if the two students could come up with the necessary land and capital.

But Burtness and Borek obtained the use of a small piece of campus land and later received funding from the student government association. They also met with Hays Atkins, who runs St. Olaf’s food service for the Bon Appétit company, to discuss the possibility of a student farm that would function as a wholesaler instead of a CSA. In a move that would ensure both the college’s green light and, ultimately, the farm’s success, Atkins promised to purchase every piece of produce the farm could grow.

While Atkins’ commitment to a student-initiated project is surprising and impressive, it fits squarely with the considerable energy St. Olaf, a college of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, has for several years invested in ecological sustainability. The school’s current strategic plan names sustainability as a goal, and a task force—comprised of students, faculty, and staff—supports several projects aimed at both reducing the college’s collective ecological footprint and facilitating education and conversation on the subject. As anyone who has scrutinized environmental impact knows, a primary concern is food—its production, use, and waste disposal.

Borek and Burtness started the St. Olaf Garden Research and Organic Works (STOGROW) in spring 2005. Burtness said they wanted “to provide an opportunity for students to put all of their theoretical knowledge to work, to experience how good it feels to have practical skills.” St. Olaf’s curator of natural lands formally supervises the project, but STOGROW is run entirely by students. The school year finds Borek, Burtness, and many volunteers squeezing in farm tasks around coursework and other commitments. This summer, STOGROW will provide paid work for its founders and two others.

STOGROW has given its farmers opportunities to connect with the St. Olaf community and with others from the area. Borek is a Northfield native; his family owns farmland that borders STOGROW. He brought to the project his relevant experience but also ties with local people who could, for instance, fix a broken tiller for a reasonable price. And one of Burtness’ professors connected the students to Poly-Tex, a small company in nearby Castle Rock from which they purchased a greenhouse made from recycled steel.

While STOGROW’s farmers do their best to meet some of the specific needs of Bon Appétit (which has no relation to the magazine of the same name), they acknowledge that Atkins and his staff go out of their way to support and accommodate the farm. Burtness praised Atkins and head chef Peter Abrahamson for their flexibility—adjusting menus, dealing with unpredictable deliveries. STOGROW, Bon Appétit, and other campus sustainability efforts “have all become highly interwoven,” she said, which aids all parties. This sense of mutual benefit points to the fact that Atkins and Abrahamson’s operation defines value in terms that go beyond bottom-line profits.

BON APPÉTIT’S OVERALL mission calls for the support of sustainable agriculture and local communities. Thus Atkins’ attitude toward such ideals is at one level a matter of company policy. But St. Olaf’s food service operation is notable for its deep involvement with the institution it serves, and it has been pivotal in the impressive steps the college has taken.

If support for local, sustainable farming is the goal, then Bon Appétit’s relationship with a student-run organic farm on campus would seem a near-perfect realization. But STOGROW provides only a small percentage of the campus’s produce. Along with providing a market for the produce grown on campus, Atkins purchases 25 percent of St. Olaf’s food from local and regional sources, most of them within 200 miles of the campus.

As St. Olaf’s sustainability efforts gained momentum over the last couple years, Atkins was encouraged by student involvement. “Things really started to come together two years ago,” he said, “when Jim [Farrell] started his campus ecology class. He chose to incorporate our efforts in food service as part of the curriculum, which has gotten students’ attention on a number of issues.”

Farrell, a member of the history department, is a key player in St. Olaf’s sustainability efforts. His interest in and high view of food are embedded deeply in his Christian theology. “Food and feasting have always been a part of our religious tradition,” he said. “Eating is one way the creation nourishes us, one way we do incarnation. It wasn’t the Last Supper just by accident—it wouldn’t work as the Last Dance or the Last Martini. Eating together is an intimate act, and communities come from communion.”

The campus ecology course was developed and team-taught in 2004 by Farrell and Elise Braaten, then a senior. This spring, Farrell is teaching the class with Burtness. The syllabus includes a variety of readings, and Burtness explained that she and Farrell “do our best to connect the ideas of the readings to our real-world surroundings.” The class examines material and cultural consumption, enabling its participants to “learn how the habits of our hearts affect the way we in-habit this place on earth,” Farrell has written.

The class completes projects that aim to increase environmental awareness among the campus community. Students also attend bread-baking lab sections and cafeteria tours, both courtesy of Bon Appétit. And, of course, they gain hands-on farming experience by helping out at STOGROW. Most find the course meaningful because it “deal[s] with very real and important issues, such as vocation and the future,” said Burtness. She described new, potentially long-term projects this year’s students are initiating, opportunities to “get credit for effecting change in a concrete and local way.”

INEVITABLY, SOME food goes to waste. As head of campus facilities, Pete Sandberg—who co-founded, with Farrell, the campus task force on sustainability—initiated plans to stop sending food waste to the landfill and start composting it. A student environmental group spent a week weighing waste to determine how large a composter was needed, and Sandberg’s office secured the necessary capital and handled the logistics. The St. Olaf grounds crew operates the composter and uses the compost to fertilize campus grounds.

The grounds crew spends four worker-hours each day gathering food scraps and adjusting the composting process to accommodate the day’s menu. This somewhat labor-intensive operation makes the composting project’s financial benefit pretty nominal. But grounds manager Jim Fisher is “counting on the bottom line looking better in the future, as garbage tipping costs go up every year.” The composter currently removes up to 3.5 tons from the waste stream each week.

Fisher has found interest in the composting project not only among the campus community but also from municipal and county waste handlers. “Believe it or not,” he said, “there are people in the government that are concerned about both the bottom line and the environment.”

The St. Olaf community, for its part, seems to be enthusiastic about sustainability efforts. The word “sustainability” is being tossed around more than ever in the current academic year, which the college provost declared a “Sustainability Year.” “Our goal has been to get all of this accepted as simply the way we live here,” explained Sandberg, “and that’s happening.”

Sandberg added that he “feel[s] like we’re getting back to our roots in many ways,” as St. Olaf’s campus has historically been managed in conservation-oriented ways. “The most sustainable model we’ve had in the upper Midwest,” Sanberg said, “is the 1920s and ’30s family farm,” a model noteworthy for its self-sufficiency and minimal waste. “All this was, and will be, stewardship of time, talents, and natural resources in the finest sense.”

Farrell finds spiritual significance in this sort of intentional and responsible work, significance the Catholic professor attributes in part to St. Olaf’s Lutheranism. “The Lutheran tradition of vocation asks us to do good work in the world,” he explained, “but not necessarily to do all of it with Christian symbolism. Work doesn’t have to be baptized or Christianized to be good; it’s already good. As Luther said, a Christian cobbler makes good shoes, not inferior shoes with crosses on them.”

The theology of work will likely be one topic addressed by Farrell and others this July at St. Olaf’s sustainability-themed conference on worship, theology, and the arts. The school’s Christian heritage has influenced its sustainability efforts so far and will continue to inform the conversation. Current plans include projects dealing with food (a student-initiated study will examine potential uses for the college’s additional agricultural land) and other issues (a wind turbine will be installed and wired into the campus electrical grid by July).

All reflect the cooperation of students, faculty, and staff who share a commitment to connect the life of the mind with the world of the physical, to live a collective existence intentionally on the earth. As Burtness said, these efforts engage and nourish students because “they remind us that the foundation of the ivory tower does indeed rest on the earth beneath our feet.”

Steve Thorngate is editorial assistant at Sojourners.

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