On a recent summer day, under a scorching blue sky, 15 Vermont high school students rotated between stations on Vermont Technical College’s Randolph campus in an activity named, “Follow the Carbon.”
In the fields of the college’s market garden, the teenagers pulled carrots to chomp on and dug up plant samples. They learned how growing cover crops like clover and soy, and applying compost can build carbon naturally and help reduce the need for synthetic fertilizers.
At another station, they used stethoscopes to listen to the sound of a cow’s rumen doing its work, then toured the campus bio-digester, which uses bacteria to break down organic matter including farm and food waste. It then captures the methane that is produced to provide power for the college campus. “We do in one month what it takes a cow to do in a day,” VTC professor Joan Richmond-Hall noted, directly linking to the animal “bio-digester” which they had just heard in action.
The students were halfway through the Governor’s Institute’s week-long Farms, Food and Your Future, a special topic offered for the first time last summer. The 31-year-old nonprofit holds nine residential summer sessions focusing on the arts, information technology, engineering, Asian cultures, youth activism, entrepreneurship, mathematical sciences and environmental science. Students come from all over the state, representing a range of academic abilities and income levels.
The Farms, Food and Your Future program was based at VTC but took students up to visit Sterling College and Pete’s Greens in Craftsbury, to Hardwick’s Vermont Food Venture Center and to Hartshorn Farm and American Flatbread in the Mad River Valley. They debated genetically modified organisms; gleaned 2,500 pounds of beets for those without access to fresh, local vegetables; and harvested ingredients to top their own pizzas baked in the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont’s mobile wood-fired oven.
The teenagers came to the program with a variety of backgrounds and motivations but most seemed to have a handle on how big an issue it tackled. “I’m concerned about global warming,” said Chelsey Rich, 17, of Johnson. “I came to get a better understanding of the positive and negative impacts of food on the environment, locally and globally.”
The idea for a new farms and food topic came out of a subcommittee of the state’s Farm to Plate initiative, whose goal is to support food and agriculture-related job creation, economic growth, and access to healthful, fresh food. “For so much of the growing season, the kids are not in school because they were supposed to be home, working on the farm that doesn’t exist anymore,” explained one of the institute’s lead faculty, Tom Sabo, a Montpelier High School science teacher. “We are losing those connections and that understanding.”
A team led by VTC faculty member Molly Willard along with Sabo and Jonathan Kaplan of Lyndon State College developed the curriculum and carry out the programming for Farms, Food and Your Future. Their goal is to expose participants to the science, economics, policy and sociology of food—as well as its diverse flavors.
Like the other Governor’s Institute themes, the curriculum is designed to give young people an in-depth dive into a topic that interests them. The only requirement for admission is that they are “passionate about learning this one subject,” explained Governor’s Institute executive director, Karen Taylor Mitchell.
A number of the participants, including Brianna Barker, 16, of West Rutland, Natalie Cullen, 18, of Windham, and Colby Johnson, 17, of Chelsea, already work on farms. Others were more familiar with the consumer end of the food cycle and wanted to better understand the whole picture. Each student had found different experiences compelling. Both Colby and Underhill’s Makenna Higbee, 17, said they had especially enjoyed working with draft horses at Sterling College. For David Dregallo, 16, of Middlebury, a highlight was seeing the bio-digester at work on VTC’s campus turning farm waste into something productive.
Brianna had been impressed by the group’s visit to Pete’s Greens: “It gave me a better idea of the opportunity there is,” she said, explaining that the small scale of Vermont can sometimes seem limiting. “I didn’t realize how big it was until I went there.” She and a few of her fellow participants also proudly held out their hands to show fingers still stained red from the beets they had gleaned for those in need.
On the final day, the students would participate in a Hunger Banquet organized by Oxfam to bring to life the issue of imbalanced food access around the world: 20 percent of the group would dine on a plentiful and varied meal to represent the well-off, 30 percent would receive a simple meal of rice and beans, and the remaining half would eat only a small bowl of rice and water.
The question of how to build sustainable food systems that can equitably feed the world’s growing population came up repeatedly, an important point for Tatum MacBride, a 15-year-old from Burlington. “I came here because I want to know where my food is coming from and I want to know what’s in it,” she said. “I’m also interested in the food system and in solutions to feeding people. There’s so much waste in the world. It’s been great having everyone teach us to think of the food system as a cycle, all linked and all feeding back into itself.”