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Food for thought

Food for thought

Keri Brandt Off headshot
Keri Brandt Off (Political Science, ’95), chair and professor of Sociology & Human Services

Food is sacred, binding people to the land and to one another. Food unites us in the hardest times and in our most joyous moments of celebration. Gathered around food, we tell stories, honor the past, pause for renewal, and fortify our bodies for the path ahead. Food also represents our relationships with more-than-human entities, from the tiniest microbe to the largest ungulate. Indeed, the foundations of food–water, soil, and seeds–are the very foundations of life.

Food also intersects with so many aspects of education. Nearly every discipline at Fort Lewis College can weave food-related courses into the curriculum. Over the last two years, our food-focused programs have expanded to include degree options in Nutrition, the Regenerative Food Systems Certificate, and classes that examine varied aspects of food systems. From courses about the political ecology of food and Indigenous food systems to water justice and the restoration of soil health, students have access to the knowledge they need to build innovation skills and enact positive change for all beings and our planet.

Building on the Southwest’s rich heritage in food and agriculture, students have unlimited access to hands-on work and field practice. Thanks to scholarships made available through the Native American Agriculture Fund, the Natural Pathways Foundation, the FLC Foundation, and the Schusterman Grant, we’ve welcomed a steady increase in paid internship opportunities. These initiatives support summer placements in Indigenous and regenerative agriculture programs. They include travel fees, wages, stipends, and housing and food costs.

“Across all our differences, food serves as a common denominator. It forces us to see one another as connected in our shared mission to protect and restore the resources that make vibrant food systems possible.”

Another powerful resource available to students is the Farmer Training Program at the Old Fort, the former Indian Boarding School site, in Hesperus, Colorado, 25 miles west of Durango. With a concentration on high-elevation food production, the Farmer Training Program launched in 2016 with a cohort of three FITs. The Old Fort will host 15 students, faculty, alumni, and community members for the 2022 season. Six of these students will be fully funded through grants and scholarships.

Beyond learning techniques in agriculture, students also explore what knowledge and perspectives are necessary to honor a range of cultural practices. Questions of justice and access to food are often centered in curriculum and internships. Students understand that a system of food apartheid creates an abundance of nutritious food for some communities, while denying access to healthy foods in other communities. This is apparent in many of our neighboring communities. Not far from campus, students see and feel the impact of an inequitable food distribution system.

illustration of a brain wearing green glasses

This persistent issue of access is felt on campus, too. Student services strive to provide for students who need better access to food to keep their minds and bodies strong enough to successfully complete their degrees. These students can find a steady supply of locally sourced, healthy food at the Grub Hub Food Pantry. Some fresh produce comes from the Environmental Center’s garden and the campus food forest before returning to the soil via the EC’s Rocket Composter.

We’re also developing an Indigenous Cultural Garden in collaboration with our Native American and Alaska Native communities. Improving the campus architecture to reflect Indigenous perspectives sets FLC apart as a leader in honoring our diverse student body, from cultivating tiny plants to managing wild food systems.

We have a long way to go. FLC continues to work hard to nurture intimate connections with place and the inspiration we need to live meaningfully with our food. Across all our differences, food serves as a common denominator. It forces us to see one another as connected in our shared mission to protect and restore the resources that make vibrant food systems possible.

One of the keys to fostering this sense of interconnectedness is faculty-student relationships. When I was a student at Fort Lewis College, my faculty mentors gave me the courage to dream and learn how to be a good steward of the land. I dreamed of returning to FLC as a professor, so I could help encourage and equip the next generation of food-systems advocates, leaders, and decision-makers. I can tell you now, the ideas they are bringing to the table give me hope.

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