College hires food coordinator to develop locally-focused programs

672259204_9FacJ-MThis past summer the Zilkha Center for Environmental Initiatives expanded its array of sustainability initiatives to include food preparation, hiring Lori van Handel as manager of the Sustainable Food and Agriculture Program. The position was newly created and is funded by a grant from the Joyce and Irving Goldman Foundation, a national non-profit.

Van Handel began working late this summer to coordinate the College’s efforts to make dining more environmentally friendly and bring it more in line with the growing international sustainable food movement. According to van Handel, this movement encompasses two main goals. The first is supporting sustainable farms, which avoid chemicals that pollute the water and soil, respect the rights of animals and workers and enhance rural agricultural communities. The second is to support local farms and to reduce the number of miles food must travel, and ultimately reduce greenhouse gas emissions from food-transporting vehicles. Van Handel said that she feels she is already making progress, noting that her projects ultimately aim to bring local and healthy foods to dining halls.

Van Handel is working with Berkshire Grown, a local organization that advocates sustainable farming practices across the county, in order to find more local growers who can supply food to the College. According to Bob Volpi, director of Dining Services, locally produced yogurt will soon be available in all campus dining halls – likely the first of many steps aimed at supporting local sustainable farming practices while reducing the distance involved in food shipments.

Stephanie Boyd, director of the Zilkha Center, noted that addressing food sustainability is a vital part of the College’s overall aim of reducing its environmental impact, and said that the goal is to reduce dependence on food that has been produced without consideration of its environmental impact. “In general, our society has been focusing on providing cheap food, which has encouraged agricultural practices that are harmful to environment, soil, water systems and the people who consume them,” Boyd said.

Volpi said that he sees food sustainability not only as an environmental issue, but also as one of Dining Services’ “strategic imperatives.” Indeed, van Handel is keen to emphasize that improving food sustainability is not just about reducing the College’s impact on the environment, but is also very much in its own interest. She believes that the program will have many positive effects, from providing health benefits for students to saving money – an important concern as the College makes budget cuts.

In addition to having the strong support of Dining Services, van Handel said that she has been pleased with the reaction of the student body to her work. “Students have an impressive understanding of the complex issues involved with food sustainability,” she said. “They are way ahead of the College in terms of their awareness of this issue.” Nonetheless, van Handel said that she is anxious to educate the community further on a wide range of food-related policy issues, from “food justice” to the link between “our industrialized food system and our health care problems,” she said.

Darra Goldstein, professor of Russian and founding editor of Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture, said that the new position and the College’s focus on sustainable food is a positive development. “It extends beyond a narrow definition of sustainability to embrace many different disciplines, so that the entire Williams community can begin to think about the importance of mindful eating,” Goldstein said. She described van Handel’s position as crucial and expressed hope that she would “be able to overcome the traditional attitude that food is just recipes and not worthy of serious scholarship,” she said.

Van Handel has worked as an adjunct professor at Tufts, taught a Winter Study course at the College and most recently served as director of preventive conservation at the Williamstown Conservation Center. Her personal and research interests include artisanal cheese production, taste and sensory evaluation, heritage breed and native plant conservation and preservation and advocacy of food traditions.