Putting Food on the Table, Sustainably

Posted: January 13, 2014 at 5:00 am, Last Updated: January 16, 2014 at 5:55 pm

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By Michele McDonald

oyster farm

Professor Gabriella Petrick and students from her Sustainable Virginia class listen to Anthony Marchetti describe sustainable farm practices at Rappahannock Oyster Company, an oyster farm, restaurant and oyster supplier in Topping, Va. Photo by Alexis Glenn

From getting their feet wet with oyster farming to foraging for mushrooms, students in a George Mason University Nutrition and Food Studies class ventured out of the classroom last spring and took field trips to learn about sustainable food in Virginia.

“I wanted to take what we do in an academic setting and move it outside,” says Gabriella Petrick, an associate professor in the College of Health and Human Services. “There’s real value to the experiential setting.”

Gabriella Petrick

Petrick describes the oyster and its role in sustainable food. Photo by Alexis Glenn

It’s more than just about food on the table, it’s a business, Petrick says. Students visited Blue Ridge Dairy to learn about cheese-making, Copper Fox Distillery to find out about distilling, Rappahannock River Oysters to learn about sustainable oyster farming and a abattoir (slaughterhouse) to be educated about raising and slaughtering meat. Students also volunteered in DC Central Kitchen to see how food could be a force for social change and learn about environmental conservation through foraging.

The idea of sustainable local food prompts a lot of enthusiasm, but there’s an equal amount of naiveté, Petrick says. There needs to be a reality check.

“What do we, as citizens of Virginia, want our food system to look like?” Petrick says is one question people need to ask. “We need to consider the economic impact. These are businesses, and sustainable economic viability is just as important. When you get out and talk to people whose livelihoods depend on it, you get a much more complex picture of what sustainable food really means.”

For environmental science and public policy doctoral student Chelsie Romulo, it was her first food and nutrition class, but one that fit into her area of study. “Where we’re getting our food from and how we’re going to feed a population is a huge conservation issue,” she says.

Romulo says she appreciated the different viewpoints in the class because students included nutritionists, biologists, farmers and environmentalists. “I liked how Professor Petrick pushed our assumptions.”

Danielle Wyman, outreach and community engagement manager in George Mason’s Office of Sustainability, is working on a master’s in interdisciplinary studies. Her study area is sustainable food, so the class was a natural. Wyman also manages Mason’s Potomac Heights Organic Vegetable Garden.

The class offered her a chance to see firsthand how food moved from the farm to the table. “I spoke to friends and family and was surprised at how many people didn’t know what happened before the meat got to their grocery basket,” Wyman says. “Fruits, vegetables and meat — it’s important to know how your food is produced.”

This semester, Petrick is teaching Introduction to Wine and Beer as well as Introduction to Nutrition. She looks forward to teaching another future (but as yet unscheduled) course about sustainable food in Virginia.

Write to Michele McDonald at mmcdon15@gmu.edu

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