By Heather O'Neill
January 29, 2010
College dining halls aren't thought of as being synonymous with health foods, what with the plethora of French fries and sugar cereals available in most. At Green Mountain College, in Poultney, Vt., students and administrators are challenging that stereotype from farm to fork, not just for the health of the student body but for the health of the planet.
The college's environmental practices start with the school's core curriculum, its signature 37-credit Environmental Liberal Arts program, or ELA. The program includes core courses taught by faculty members from a variety of academic disciplines, which are designed to give students a traditionally broad liberal arts experience while encouraging an awareness of the environment and individual responsibility.
In fact Green Mountain College's entire curriculum, regardless of major, is designed with a focus on the environment in mind, according to Kevin Coburn, director of communications for Green Mountain College (GMC).
"We offer the traditional majors and minors that you will find at a liberal arts college, like art, biology, history, education, psychology. If you are majoring in business, you are going to be concentrating a lot on sustainable business practices, like the triple bottom line for instance," he said. "Every student that graduates has a very deep and broad grounding in environmental topics. Over the years we have developed a student body that takes sustainability very seriously."
That is evidenced in a number of ways on campus, among them the Renewable Energy and EcoDesign Certificate Program, or REED, which was introduced in the fall of 2009. REED allows undergraduate students of any discipline to explore the renewable energy and green building fields. Like GMC's ELA curriculum, the program is field-based and interdisciplinary.
While it is helpful to students who plan to pursue careers in the renewable energy or green building fields, it is open to any interested student as a means of enriching their knowledge of environmental and ecological issues. Students, in addition to receiving a certificate, can gain valuable job experience through working for credit on projects with the program's partner companies, like Solar Energy International and Yestermorrow Design/Build School.
Root Cellar: 101
In much the same way that all of the Earth's eco-systems are connected to one another, so are the different environmental programs connected at Green Mountain College. On campus, students in Professor Lucas Brown's class Ecological Design/Build are about halfway through the process of hand-building a root cellar. Work was started in the fall and, once the ground thaws, students in the spring class will pick up where the work was left off.
Built by hand using primarily local and recycled materials, like locally sourced hay bales and slate recycled from local mines, the root cellar will be used during the fall and winter months to store vegetables, like potatoes, carrots, winter squash, onions and other produce. The use of a root cellar not only extends the eating season of certain crops without the need for refrigeration, but it can be used for other purposes during warmer months when temperatures are too high for produce storage.
Kyla Jaquish, a junior at Green Mountain College, explained the process of building the root cellar.
"To design the rootcellar we first looked into a lot of root cellars around the world to find the best design. After knowing exactly what we wanted, and exactly how it should function, we got to building," Jaquish said. "We first started with installing one-inch insulation to the ceiling. Once that was finished we built a door and wall frame (and) made a frame along the ceiling for the hay bales to line up with. We hand built a dutch door and, once it was finished, we hung it in the frame. We stacked the hay bales in the wall frame, staggering them and using wooden stakes to hold them in place. Finally, to ventilate the root cellar we used dryer vents through holes in insulated windows."
Jaquish explained that in the spring, the hay bales will be taken out of the root cellar and used as feed for the animals on the farm, which include free-range chickens, lamb, pigs and dairy cows.
The farm grows vegetables that wind up not only on the plates of students and faculty but on the plates in homes outside the Green Mountain College community thanks to the farm's Community Supported Agriculture program and sales at local farmers markets.
The root cellar project is in collaboration with Cerridwen Farm, GMC's 22-acre farm. The farm grows a percentage of the food served in Green Mountain College's dining hall, and having a root cellar will allow the farm's über-fresh, ultra-local late season vegetables to stay fresh for much longer into the winter.
The project continues the farm's mission to one day run completely without the use of fossil fuels. Currently the farm uses solar panels to heat the water needed for its small dairy operation (the yield of which is also served in the dining hall) and has rejected gas-guzzling tractors, instead opting to use oxen Lou and Bill to do the heavy lifting on the farm.
A Lasting Impact
Ecologically-minded students, like junior Garnet Morgan, a volunteer on the farm whose focus at GMC is Natural Resource Management and Ecological Design, finds the experience of living and working in a sustainable environment to be a fulfilling one.
"Spending years of your developing life reading and writing about ecologically-minded living practices but not having the capacity to act of any of them can be very frustrating," he said. "This is something that I think much of my generation struggles with. Cerridwen Farm provides a chance for GMC students to walk the talk, something that has helped me a great deal in addressing that frustration. Anyone can be involved with the farm if they want to. It has a very open and friendly atmosphere, and there is such a diversity of integrated systems in operation on the farm that anyone's interest can be met."
Morgan, who said he developed an interest in an eco-friendly lifestyle in high school in reaction to what he perceived to be the shallow values of his high school peers, said that he feels he will use the interlaced environmental lessons he has learned at Green Mountain College throughout his life.
"I am so glad for the farm at GMC, for all the professors that incorporate farming and self-sufficiency into their teachings, and for all the other students with that shared interest," he said. "While I don't plan on becoming a farmer, per se, I will most definitely be using all of the skills I have gained through the farm and the REED program throughout the rest of my life.
"The inclusion of those elements into my liberal arts education has empowered me to be able to craft a life for myself that is not dependent on all the aspects of our American society that are on the brink of collapse," he continued. "I feel confident that I will be able to play a strong role in building community resiliency wherever I find myself after graduation."