Our Stories

Connecting with the Land

Almost from the moment Kimberlee Chambers arrived on campus two years ago, students have been knocking on her office door, looking for her assistance on research and campus projects.

That's what happens when your area of expertise is something close to everyone's hearts: food. Chambers, an assistant professor of environmental science and Latin American studies, has researched everything from Mexican peppers to Willamette Valley farms.

Chambers is an ethnoecologist who studies the ways people manage and interact with their landscape, and the relationship between cultural diversity and biodiversity. Much of her research has focused on agriculture in Mexico. She traveled there to study the harvesting and commercialization of a native wild chili pepper, and to interview Mexican farmers who continue to grow traditional varieties of corn instead of switching to something more modern that produces a higher yield.

When she came to Willamette, located in a valley known for its long growing season and rich soil, students began approaching her with another food interest: local and sustainable agriculture. The local food movement has grown so quickly in popularity in recent years that the word "locavore" was New Oxford American Dictionary's 2007 word of the year.

"The amount of attention to this topic has been endless, and much of the attention has been focused on Oregon," Chambers says. "The sustainable ag interest on campus is hugely student driven."

Chambers and her students received immediate support from the University's food service provider, Bon Appétit Management Company, which is recognized nationally for working with area farmers to provide the campus with local and sustainably produced foods.

Two faculty grants from Willamette -- one through the Hewlett Grant program and the other from the Center for Sustainable Communities -- helped Chambers develop curriculum and create opportunities for students to study agriculture in the area. Students also were finding their own ways explore the issue. One group who had organized a Take a Break (TaB) service trip to visit local farms and learn about sustainable agriculture asked Chambers to be a faculty advisor.

Chambers also created a College Colloquium class called "Geography of Food" to help first-year students explore their connection with the landscape. She brings in popular Willamette Valley produce to illustrate her lessons and introduce the students to crops many have never seen. For their final paper, the students analyzed the possibility of eating an all-local diet in their hometowns.

"One of my end goals would be to get the students to think more critically about what they're eating," Chambers says.

People are attracted to the local food movement for numerous reasons, including a desire for more flavorful food, worries about the environmental impact of conventional agriculture and concerns about food safety.

But the largest draw for many locavores seems to be the sense of community they feel from becoming involved in a network of people who care about food, Chambers says. They enjoy learning about what's growing in their area and feeling connected to the land.

"A lot of theoretical papers have been written about how we are simultaneously becoming a more global society as well as a more local society. People want to feel like they belong somewhere. They want to feel at home. Going to the farmers market to buy your food, and talking with the farmer while you buy it, fulfills that need."