Willamette delegation attends Yale Food Systems Symposium

by University Communications,

They ate insects, talked with sustainability advocates and delivered a presentation before a national audience.

Now, a team of Willamette University alumni and students are eager to put what they learned from the Yale Food Systems Symposium into practice.

“I enjoyed hearing both about the ‘big picture’ challenges within our food system, as well as the local innovations that people are applying on the East Coast,” says Sam Spengler ’15, an environmental history major.

“It was also interesting talking to other student farmers from schools like Yale and Duke about their university farming operations and some of the challenges they face. It seems like there are clearly cultural barriers that need to be overcome across the country to warm administrators up to the idea of agriculture within a liberal arts setting.”

The Yale Food Systems Symposium took place Nov. 14 and 15. Coordinated by Yesenia Gallardo ’09, the student-led, interdisciplinary conference investigated how researchers, theorists, practitioners and others can work together to create a just and sustainable food system.

Investigating Sustainable Solutions

At the conference, history professor Wendy Petersen Boring presented a talk titled “Greenhorns, Growers and Grains: Innovative Food Systems in the Willamette Valley, Oregon.”

Her co-presenters were Spengler, Kyle Batisky ’15, Marshall Curry ’13 and Victoria Binning ’14. Together, they described current trends in Oregon’s regional food webs, which are pushing conventional practices toward more ecologically sustainable and socially just food systems.

For Petersen Boring, the trip strengthened her belief that Willamette's Zena Forest and Farm is nationally distinct and is of tremendous value for students.

“The Willamette Valley is like a living laboratory for understanding the complexities in our current food system,” she says. “I hope to continue to create unique opportunities for students to connect food justice with environmental sustainability.”

Batisky says he was inspired by his conversations with other university students, who face the same challenges with their farming programs that Willamette does with Zena. And Spengler says he was most moved by the presentation on edible insects.

“The panel included both the first large-scale cricket producer in the United States, as well as a woman from Texas who is using cricket flower to bake crackers, ‘Crickers,’ and other edible goods,” he says.

“It really opened my eyes up to alternative diets from around the world, and the samples afterward were great.”

Mitigating Change

For Binning, the most impactful aspect of the conference was surrounding herself with people who understand the importance of sustainable agriculture and experiential learning.

Her biggest takeaway was that interdisciplinary learning is essential to addressing problems in today’s agricultural system.

“The only way we are going to mitigate change, create resilient local food systems and provide farmers and farm workers living wages … is not by putting a bunch of academics in a room together, but by bringing members of all parts of the food system to the table,” she says.

“Is that way more difficult? Absolutely. Is it gong to create more appropriate and innovative solutions? Absolutely.”

Spengler and Batisky are both graduates of the Zena Summer Institute in Sustainable Agriculture and are co-presidents of the Farm Club, while Curry and Binning work for Marion-Polk Food Share. On Nov. 19, they joined Petersen Boring in the Hatfield Library on campus to talk about the conference.