When the Yale Sustainable Food Project (co-founded by Josh Viertel) was searching for a new director, they looked northward, to Canada (Vancouver to be exact). Why Canada? Because that’s where they could find Mark Bomford, one of the leading figures in land-based education, who, at the time, was running his Centre for Sustainable Food Systems at the University of British Columbia.
Despite having grown up in a farming community, Bomford attributes his fascination with agriculture to his undergraduate study of physics. Inspired by one of his professors who demonstrated the principles of physics through mechanic labs on his farm, Bomford began to see food production as an entry point into almost any academic discipline. He ended up with a degree in Agroecology (the study of food systems through an ecological lens) and since then has been instructing other students in connecting with the land around them.
What inspired you to found The Centre for Sustainable Food Systems at the University of British Columbia?
It was certainly a group effort, and for the group of students and faculty who shared this vision, founding the Centre was both an obvious and necessary thing to do. Students were demanding more practical learning, bringing sustainability to the forefront of food and agriculture studies was crucial, and UBC was blessed with a one-of-a-kind piece of land right on campus.
The potential to demonstrate how a working farm system on campus could enrich the academic experience was a time-limited opportunity, however, so there was a lot of urgency that underpinned the creation of the Centre. It was effectively a “use it or lose it” situation. Thankfully, once things started up, the demand for programs meant that the farm was soon used by more people than we could have ever imagined at the beginning.
The Yale Sustainable Food Project supports local food in the cafeteria, runs a working farm and provides a food-related academic curriculum. What specifically attracted you to it?
There were many things that impressed me about the project, particularly the fact that the activities were supported by the senior levels of the University administration even though Yale did not have an agricultural school in the traditional sense. I imagined (correctly, as it turns out) that at the YSFP, food and agriculture were being embraced as contributing broadly to academic life across disciplines, rather than being pigeonholed as simply the domain of the agricultural sciences. To me, this implied a remarkably forward-looking and broad-thinking university. It seemed like an environment where a project like this could thrive and have a substantial impact outside the university gates.
Why do you think universities are especially suited for projects like the one at UBC and Yale?
The challenges that we face in the food system, particularly as linked to global health and environmental issues, require the expertise and perspective of many different disciplines. Universities provide the fertile ground that brings this diversity of expertise and perspective together in one place. The food system is also greatly in need of fresh ideas and new energy, and the students who are drawn to projects like the YSFP provide a constant flow of new energy and ideas.
Why is farm-based learning effective?
Farm-based learning, and more broadly, land-based learning, provides among the most holistic learning environments for students I can think of. In many areas, land-based learning can fill in some of the glaring gaps of a more conventional classroom-based education. As far as getting more people involved, I feel like that initial experience has an infectious quality: once you start learning in a way that engages your head, hands and heart, produces a tangible result at its conclusion, and is directly relevant to current and pressing global issues, it’s hard to go back to learning in a more restricted way. At UBC or Yale, we’ve never had a problem with growing demand once students begin their involvement.
(As I’m typing this, I see an email coming through to the effect that we need to contact the registrar at Yale to find a bigger classroom to cope with over-enrollment in our “Farming 101″ course. This kind of problem is pretty common!)
Where do you think the Yale Sustainable food project is headed?
I’d like to see it embedded into more of Yale’s curriculum. I’d like to see a new generation of “food literate” leaders emerge from Yale. We need policy makers, entrepreneurs, legislators, and innovators in general who have some first-hand understanding of the food system, and know both the challenges it faces and the opportunities it holds.
How to help: Support food education for primary school students by donating to one of Bomford’s other intiatives, the Growing Schools project.