When I hear people start to despair about the state of the world, I tell them to come and meet my students.
I teach in a block called Growing Connections that blends science, literature, and field experiences around the themes of food and agriculture. One of the goals of this course is to get students to understand the processes involved in getting food to our tables.
Each Friday this past fall, we visited local farmers, met beef and dairy cows raised by multigenerational area families, observed the apple and herring harvests in full swing, worked to help put to bed the school garden at the Washburn Elementary School, and invited speakers into the classroom.
I always enjoy my classes at Northland, but this group of young people seems particularly inspired and eager to tackle the challenges facing the world’s food production in light of climate change and social inequality.
They attend lectures outside of class to hear experts speak about climate change, soil health, food waste, and they watched a documentary about how the people of Bayfield County worked together to keep a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation at bay, the first county in Wisconsin to achieve this success.
They took Rob Greenfield’s challenge about food waste to heart and monitored their own food waste as they ate in the cafeteria. They attended Applefest with an awareness of, and appreciation for, how much of the food we waste is due to our privilege at having an abundance of food available to us on any given day.
Then they went to work.
Some changed their personal food practices, others volunteered in the campus composting initiative, and still others worked with the Food Recovery Network, preparing leftovers from the Northland cafeteria to be distributed to our local food pantry, The Brick.
In class, they have reflected deeply on how it is essential to do the work necessary to see that healthy food—a basic human right—becomes available to all.
And we cook and eat together. In this world full of processed and pre-prepared food, Michael Pollan calls learning to cook real food a radical act. Inspired by his book,Cooked, we celebrated the harvest by flame-broiling local beef roasts from Tim Mika’s Moonlight Meadows Farm, roasted freshly-harvested vegetables from Northland’s school garden, baked apple crisp and made cider from apples from Hauser’s Orchard.
We made homemade soups and marveled at how easy and inexpensive it was to make a satisfying meal for a crowd. This past week we baked bread and made our own butter—it took less than ninety minutes to go from flour, yeast, water, and cream on the counter to warm slices of bread slathered in hand-shaken, fresh butter in our bellies.
My favorite meal of the year, though, took place at my home a few weeks ago. I invited my students over to create a meal brought to this country by my Italian grandmother. We started with a simple five-ingredient sauce, rolled our own dough, and folded tiny tortellini filled with spinach, cheese, and breadcrumbs. We rounded out the meal with a salad, chocolate cake, and a spontaneous dance party in my living room.
Wendell Berry writes, “No matter how much one may love the world as a whole, one can live fully in it only by living responsibly in some small part of it. Where we live and who we live there with define the terms of our relationship to the world and to humanity.”
Having these idealistic young people here enriches my world, Northland College, and our entire community. The intelligent, empathetic and hard working students who were in my class this term give me hope.
Gina Kirsten is an English instructor and academic success coordinator at Northland College.