Through consortium, Northwest colleges launch a three-campus course

by University Communications,

Five Washington and Oregon liberal arts colleges are offering students a new intensive summer course, which will take them to three cities to study locally grown food and its impact on our lives, economy and politics. In this jointly-run course — a pilot project from the Northwest Five Consortium (NW5C) — students live and study across the Northwest, with stopovers at three colleges: Whitman College, University of Puget Sound, and Willamette University. The three-week course starts July 26 and is the first for-credit offering from the partnership.

The consortium is a two-year-old collaboration between Lewis & Clark College (Portland, Ore.), University of Puget Sound (Tacoma, Wash.), Reed College (Portland), Whitman College (Walla Walla, Wash.), and Willamette University (Salem, Ore.). The five-way partnership is a “first” for the Pacific Northwest, and reflects a growing trend across the country for colleges to pool their talent and resources in order to enhance student outcomes. NWC5 is offering this intensive, hands-on course — Foodsystems Northwest: Circuits of Soil, Labor, and Money — with the intent of rolling out a continuing roster of for-credit courses.

The Foodsystems Northwest course will combine studies with direct experience. Enrolled students will live, eat, travel and study together, under the direction of four professors from three member colleges. They will make numerous field trips — which could include a dairy farm, apple terminal, chicken plant, urban garden, food bank, Tagro compost plant, and organic farm — as they trace the themes of soil, labor and money across the Northwest “foodscape.”

“The Northwest Five Consortium embodies the values of its member institutions,” said Marlene Moore, dean of Willamette University’s undergraduate college. “Collectively, we can offer a breadth of student experiences that leverage each college’s unique people and place. Zena Forest & Farm is an outdoor laboratory and organic farm where students and faculty members engage in cross-disciplinary and collaborative research.”

The course will begin at Whitman College with a focus on the political economy of the food system, turning a global lens on the industrial wheat farms, chicken processing plants and large-scale dairy operations of the Walla Walla Valley. From there, the class will travel to University of Puget Sound, where the focus will shift to urban agriculture and food justice. Students will address questions of poverty and access to food, urban planning and the challenges of growing food in the city of Tacoma. Finally, they will travel to Willamette University where students will live and work at the student-operated Zena Forest & Farm, putting sustainable agriculture methods into practice and exploring the opportunities and obstacles associated with smaller-scale, organic farming in the Willamette Valley.

“While at Willamette, students in the NW5C course will explore questions of labor, soil and profitability of small scale organic farms as they interrogate the concept of 'sustainability' in agriculture,” said Jennifer Johns, associate director of Sustainable Agriculture Programs at Willamette University. “Students will apply that understanding not only to food production but to the creation of a sustainable and just food system.”

Also teaching the course are Aaron Bobrow-Strain, global food politics researcher and professor of politics at Whitman College, and Peter Wimberger, biology professor and director of the Slater Museum of Natural History at University of Puget Sound.

To date, students from Puget Sound, Whitman, and Willamette have signed up for Foodsystems Northwest. Each college is making its own decision about institutional financial aid and units of credit to award.

NW5C working groups are discussing potential collaborations on numerous projects in areas ranging from environmental sciences to neuroscience to visual culture to Latin American studies. The consortium’s mission of enhancing the student academic experience through the enrichment and development of the teaching faculty is supported by a grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

To learn more about the Northwest Five Consortium, visit or send an email to