Collaboration in Higher Education: An Interview with Doug Lantagne of UVM’s Food Systems Initiative

Katherine Harris

Food Tank recently talked to Doug Lantagne, director of the University of Vermont (UVM) Food Systems Initiative, to learn how the program is working to build a network of professors, students, researchers, farmers, and local partners committed to strengthening regional food systems.

Food Tank: What have been the biggest challenges faced by the UVM Food Systems Initiative since you became Director? What have been the most valuable lessons learned in this time?

Doug Lantagne (DL): One challenge has been how to define the work happening at UVM. Food systems is an emerging field of scholarship, and we are just in the process of defining what it is as an academy. With the breadth of quality work that is occurring in multiple departments, often in concert with each other, it has been hard to identify and highlight specific programs without creating concerns that other important programs are being ignored. To that end, we are about to embark on a Strategic Directions process that will encompass faculty, staff, students across campus, as well as connect with food systems leaders and others across the state and the nation. We want to reflect on the progress we’ve made in helping to define this emerging field from our first plan six years ago, and to consider our place going forward, so we can continue to address the critical issues for food systems inquiry and innovation. We aim to build an academic foundation that interacts and engages with the community to create a future food system that is focused on the needs of communities and sensitive to natural resources.

The lessons learned are often relearned and are found in the most basic elements of human behavior. Respect for what each faculty and community member engaged in food systems work is doing. We continue to relearn the importance of fostering strong relationships between the campus community and the broader food systems community to address questions such as: How do we grow food sustainably over time? What do we eat? Are we responsible for ensuring that everyone has something to eat? How do we evaluate what makes food good? What effect do our choices and those of others have on our personal health? How does our government policy affect our opportunity for choice? These and other questions easily grab the attention of faculty and community members: some are already working on food systems related issues and wish to work with others, and others are just beginning to consider how their academic and community work intersects with food systems.

FT:  Could you explain how the program has increased collaboration between degree programs on campus? How has it engaged with projects throughout Vermont?

DL: There is already a culture on campus to work together on topics of interest, regardless of the department. One indication of this collaboration was the creation of a Master’s Program in Food Systems that was supported by all colleges and boasts faculty from nearly all the colleges. This program is now expanding with the development of a Ph.D. program that will begin accepting applications next fall - also a collaborative effort across the college to bring it to fruition. Collaboration is also evident in that the graduate food systems courses were developed from the ground up through intellectual collaborations among our faculty, to address the complexity of studying food systems. The dedication of faculty to undertake this effort is a true measure of the commitment to the Food Systems Initiative at UVM.

Our leadership also represents a broad range of expertise and interests: the Food Systems Initiative has a steering committee with representatives from multiple colleges on campus, as well as from Green Mountain College, the Vermont Law School, the Agency of Agriculture, and the UVM Medical Center. Our view is that we can accomplish more working cooperatively than we can if we think of each other as competitors. That is a view that is pretty pervasive in Vermont – that we are stronger working together. The Vermont Farm to Plate Network comprises nonprofits, government agencies, farmers, businesses, and institutions across the state in a collaborative effort to increase local food production and consumption throughout the state. Many of our faculty are engaged in research with this network of organizations.

Additionally, we have developed a wonderful collaborative relationship with other high education institutions across Vermont that also focus on food systems scholarship. We have been discussing Vermont as a learning center in which our respective institutions collaborate and provide unique experiences for students who want to gain skills and knowledge about the food system. In concert with six other Vermont institutions, we created the Vermont Higher Education Food Systems Consortium. This group is working together because we know our respective institutions provide valuable and unique experiences for students who want to gain skills and knowledge about the food system, and we feel that Vermont is a fantastic place for them to do that.

FT:  What does it mean to graduate with a Certificate in Sustainable Farming from UVM? What kind of impact has the Farmer Training Program had so far?

DL: It means that our graduates from the last five years have gone on to start their own farm businesses, play leadership roles on established farms and work in non-profits, schools and advocacy organizations to promote and further a sustainable and healthy food system. The impact of our graduates will continue to grow as our alumni further their own work, and we train more future farmers in this innovative program. The UVM Farmer Training program’s intensive, farm-based curriculum provides participants both their practical skills and the theoretical understanding of sustainable, diversified farming. The aspiring farmers that come for this program from across the country learn from farm and food systems experts about sustainable production of crops from seed to harvest to market, but leave us a greater foundation on which to better understand the diversity of the food system.

FT:  What can we look forward to at the 5th Annual UVM Food Systems Summit next summer?

DL: A change is in the air. Each year we listen to our participants and incorporate changes in the program. This year our keynote speakers will still address issues from a point of complexity: biophysical, geopolitical and culture/behavior considerations, but unlike previous years, we will also provide more opportunities for participants to interact with them and each other on day one.

On day two, we will have a range of concurrent sessions, some pre-selected, some at the suggestion of participants before the Summit, and a few sessions that are developed at the Summit. The goal is to ensure that participants have both the opportunity to participate in a common dialogue on day one, and also have the opportunity to take that dialogue into a smaller group. Our design and expectation is that the small groups will provide the participants time to think more deeply about the information they have heard, to have the opportunity to further deepen the dialogue with other interested participants, and leave the Summit with new connections and some ideas to pursue when they return to their communities. We have a lot of work yet to do on the Summit, but we think it will be another wonderful exchange of ideas across disciplines and among scholars, practitioners, and others interested in food systems issues. Join us and your colleagues for the conversation.