Food for Thought
From baking bread to fermenting kimchi, Sewanee Dining’s Food Literacy Project cooks up ways for students to learn more about the origins, health implications, and environmental impacts of what they eat.
By Meredith Garrett
Chef Caroline Thompson believes that gaining an understanding of the food we eat—where it comes from, how to cook it, what its consumption means for the planet—is a natural extension of what Sewanee offers its students. “As part of a liberal arts education, you should learn to be an informed eater,” she says.
With that in mind, Sewanee Dining’s new Food Literacy Project (FLP) offers an educational and experiential way for students to learn life skills that go well beyond slicing and dicing to expose students to new cultures, give them ownership of their health, and provide insight into the effects that food choices have on the environment.
“Food is such a connector, and we want this type of education to be attainable for anyone interested in cooking,” says Thompson, manager of the FLP. “Other schools provide food education, but it tends to be through the science department or nutrition programs. Rarely do you find a dining program offering these things. It offers such a neat perspective. Any student can do this—not just someone wanting to be a dietitian or nutritionist.”
Thompson has loved the art of cooking since she was a child. A self-proclaimed “maker of things,” she prides herself on bringing people who normally wouldn’t find themselves in the same spaces together for a meal. Connecting people through cooking has become Thompson’s go-to recipe for community building. As an undergraduate at Agnes Scott College, she worked closely with refugee communities and learned about the interconnectedness of food and culture. As she introduced refugee children to the joys of popcorn, their families, in turn, taught Thompson tricks for making perfectly cooked rice.
Before coming to Sewanee, Thompson attended the New England Culinary Institute in Vermont where she became more acquainted with the art of cooking. She later worked at the Farmer’s Daughter, a farm-to-table restaurant in Chattanooga that specializes in locally sourced ingredients and cooking classes. In her new position as manager of the Food Literacy Project at Sewanee, she combines culinary arts with community engagement.
“Being in this new position allows us to strengthen the dining program because I have so much interaction with students,” Thompson says. “I can reach out to them and hear exactly what they want. Building relationships is a main piece of this project. Also, while it’s amazing that our program feeds students so incredibly well, they don’t typically have to think about acquiring necessary skills to replicate these meals. We are giving students those real-life skills through this project.”
The dining program at Sewanee is more than a cafeteria service—it’s an integral part of the University’s student engagement and retention efforts. Rick Wright, head chef and director of Sewanee Dining, frequently sits down with students to listen to their requests and concerns about the dining menu, and he is constantly dreaming up ways to enhance the food experience on the Mountain. Wright’s desire is to cultivate respect for food traditions, for the diversity of food cultures, and for a concept he likes to call “health through heritage,” a powerful motivator for healthier eating, prudent sourcing and purchasing, and acceptance of varying traditions.
“It is my hope that we will build a better dining program and graduate a more knowledgeable and capable student,” Wright says. “A student who realizes their choices make a difference, a student who wants to eat for optimal health and the health of the planet, and a student who asks questions and demands answers about food, where it came from, how it got here, and what it impacted along the way to the plate.”
The Food Literacy Project is focused on this type of awareness, collaboration, and sustainability. There are already several programs in place with plans to roll out new ones during the Advent semester. Each month, in various places around campus, the FLP hosts “family dinners.” Whether they’re held in fraternity houses, language houses, or student common areas, these meals are open to all students and encourage the lowering of social boundaries that are often present on campuses. Students learn how to make a meal, cook together, and share food in spaces they might not often visit. Thompson also teaches an Adulting 101 class dedicated to instilling practical life skills into students’ routines. In addition to classes, the Food Literacy Project also hosted two “hootenannies” during the 2018–19 academic year. These celebrations gathered students, community members, and local growers for an evening of dinner and dancing. Hootenanny-goers learned about local producers and their work, bridging the gap between farm and fork.
This fall, the project will be rolling out a series of interactive dining experiences, classes, and campuswide events. The Baker’s Guild, a new project of the FLP, hopes to employ student workers and teach them how to make various types of bread. After being trained in the art of baking, students will make bread from scratch. That bread will be showcased and served in McClurg Dining Hall. These and other student-driven projects not only yield products, but they instill a sense of ownership and pride as well.
“Another thing I’m excited about in the fall is Ferment Fridays,” Thompson says. “I want to get together with students and make a big batch of ferment. It might be kraut, kimchi, hot sauce, or anything that can be made in big batches. I want to put them in beautiful glass fermenters and set them up at McClurg with literature about the ferment. Then later, we’ll serve them on the food lines.”
The energy behind the Food Literacy Project has done more than inspire students; it’s rippling out into the surrounding community. Thompson hopes the engagement will help the FLP continue to grow and provide community cooking classes and summer camps, and even lay the groundwork for hard conversations around food scarcity and food justice.
“It’s amazing that we are doing this project, but we don’t want it to stop at Sewanee,” she says. “We want to talk about the tough issues and create a program that could be replicable in other places. The part of my job I love most is getting folks to meet each other and have conversations that help them see their similarities and differences. The Food Literacy Project is doing that. I also want to promote and improve the staff/student relationship at Sewanee, uniting local dining workers with the people they serve.”
The goal of the dining program at Sewanee is to serve the overall mission of the University itself. Holistic education is a hallmark of the liberal arts tradition, and the Food Literacy Project is becoming a vital piece of that. There are many challenges surrounding food, how we acquire it, and the way it is consumed. It only makes sense that students become good stewards of such an essential part of their lives.
“It is my dream and belief that we can lessen the impact of these problems by building understanding and by creating ownership for the dining program,” Wright says. “All the while, our students will benefit, and their lives will be enriched from becoming knowledgeable about the origins of their food, the conditions under which it is produced, and its impact on their health and the health of our planet.”