A Delicious Laboratory

Brooke Kelly ’20

A meal of fresh eggs and seasonable vegetables served over brown rice with a side of vinaigrette-topped zoodles, cucumber-infused water, and strawberry rhubarb melba for dessert can all be paid for with a student meal plan on Wednesday nights at the new student-run and locally sourced dining option on campus. Located at the Spartacus Café in Kirk Douglas Hall, The Farm is part of a new course called Green Café: Farm to Table. 

The purpose is simple: bring more healthy local food to campus. The fundamentals of the course draw attention to global issues regarding food sourcing, environmental consequences, health and well-being, and the public health problems associated with chemical pesticides and hormones from large agricultural industries. By introducing The Farm, St. Lawrence students, faculty, staff, and community partners are tackling these challenges through a unique laboratory that marries sustainability, business, and food services challenges into a single experiment. 

The Green Café: Farm to Table has been multiple years in the making. In 2017, members of the Sustainability Program began defining their priorities, focusing on social, economic, and environmental impact. With the understanding that agriculture is one of the two largest contributors of carbon emissions today, Sara Ashpole, associate professor of environmental studies and faculty coordinator for the Sustainability Program, says that the resulting goal was to support local farmers and have local food on campus, giving priority to produce available from the University’s Sustainability Farm. 

“The intent to engage both students and the community was central to how the course was developed,” says Ashpole, “as well as to open students’ eyes to the cultural value of food, because food connects people in a really powerful way.”

“When you’re trying to support a major in a unique experience, you have to be willing to be creative,” says Ashpole. In 2018, faculty put together a framework and reached out to local food entrepreneurs to help create an unconventional mashup of local agriculture, sustainability, and the business of food into an academic experiment. Many responded to the invitation to form a partnership, and by 2019, they were open for business.

The program consists of a teaching team which includes Ashpole and Samuel Joseph, Sustainability Program director and homesteader-in-residence, along with two teaching assistants, Tristan McCutcheon ’20 and Georgia Grzywacz ’20. The teaching team works in concert with local business owners and chefs Will Trithart and Josh Taillon of Big Spoon Kitchen in Potsdam, New York, and Bob Zimmerman, manager of St. Lawrence’s Dana Dining Center. Additional contributors include the student club members from Seed to Table Club, who help with advertising and contribute produce from their plot at the Sustainability Farm. It is “primarily a hands-on learning experience, with a self-teaching element as well,” says McCutcheon. 

Ashpole explains that discussions are followed by the harvesting of produce by the students. There are no official lectures, although writing assignments are included to ensure students are thinking and reflecting on the contents of the course critically. Students are also responsible for the production of the meal each Wednesday night, with shifts taking place from 1 to 10 p.m. 

“There are so many moving parts, so many people, and so many ideas, it can be challenging to fit them together,” says London Bernier ’20, an environmental studies major from Falmouth, Maine. “In a regular class, if you don’t do something, that’s on you. But that individualized concept doesn’t apply here,” says Bernier of the pressure to provide a healthy, delicious meal for customers who come to the Wednesday night dinners.

“The class is a testament to St. Lawrence’s commitment to the liberal arts experience, taking students outside of the traditional classroom format and expanding their learning by providing an alternative academic platform,” says McCutcheon.

“It is designed for everybody,” explains Ashpole. “We don’t want it to become a niche because there really is so much more to it than just the idea of sustainability and local farming.” 

Ashpole hopes to create a bridge with other programs such as chemistry, biology, English, and performance and communication arts as well, to expand and diversify further, and create a think-tank tackling sustainability on campus that can be expanded to real-world solutions in business, agriculture, and public health. 

For Ashpole, the program is not just about food, it is about much, much more. “Long term,” she says, “the hope is that it expands beyond a course to enable a fully student-run business on campus.”