Williams College alumni share a passion to work for food and environment

Thursday November 8, 2012

WILLIAMSTOWN -- When Rutland, Vt., native Mari Omland first came to the Berkshires as a Williams College freshman in the fall of 1984, she said, she became part of a "global village of innovators," where she was able to take classes that led her to "think about things that really mattered."

Omland graduated in 1987 from the college's environmental studies program, leaving with a desire to address issues like climate change and landscape health in her work. After working in nonprofits for more than a decade in places as varied as Harper's Ferry, W.Va, and Ghana, Mari and her partner, Laura Olsen, decided to move back to Vermont, where they founded Green Mountain Girls Farm in 2007.

In Northfield, Vt., the farm is part eco-tourism destination for overnight stays and part working farm with a focus on sustainability and free range food. She said running the farm has given her the chance to live her dream -- and now she can share that dream with current Williams students, when she particpates in the college's Alumni in Food panel discussion on Thursday, Nov. 15.

Sponsored by the college's Sustainable Food and Agriculture Program, the discussion will bring six Williams alums back to campus to share stories of their careers in food with current students and members of the general public. The panel consists of former Williams students from a wide range of career fields, from food journalism to farming.

"This is, to my knowledge, the first time that we've had a panel of this type, especially one focusing so specifically on the food industry," said Brent Wasser, the manager of the Sustainable Food and Agriculture Program at Williams.

Wasser said that in assembling the alumni panel for the event, he wanted to shed light on the diversity of career paths that can stem from the food industry by reaching out to former students from a wide range of professions and graduation years. The earliest year on the panel comes with David Fowle ('76) who works as the Eastern corridor adviser of the National Cooperative Grocers Association.

The youngest panelist is Johanna Kolodony ('01) a forager for PRINT Restaurant in New York's Hell's Kitchen.

"I think our students and audience members will be interested to see how differently these panelists have addressed the same issues," Wasser said.

Panel moderator John Kessler has addressed those issues through journalism as the Food and Dining writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Kessler graduated from Williams in 1983, and he said he was approached to moderate the panel "out of the blue" and immediately jumped at the opportunity to be part of the discussion at his alma mater.

Kessler, whose daughter is a senior at the college, said he wants to accomplish several things at the event. Chief among them is to show current students that, once graduation comes around, there are many diverse career options involving food that they can pursue.

For Kessler, food journalism did not seem like a logical career move when he was an undergraduate majoring in philosophy. He worked as a restaurant cook and chef before embarking on a food and travel writing career. While he did not focus on food or environmental studies as a student in the Berkshires, Kessler said Williams' mindfulness of sustainability and eco-friendly practices is unique.

"When you live and work in such a beautiful place, you want to be a good steward of it," Kessler said. "You want to see the agriculture done right, and see support for the kinds of jobs and community that support local food systems."

Fowle said he has a similar view of Williams. Fowle, who got involved with food co-ops when he returned to Williamstown in 1976, graduated with a degree in economics and a focus in environmental studies. He said people like former Williams professor and environmental economist Thomas Tietenberg gave classes that inspired him long after he graduated.

Inspired as a student, Omland said she is now ready to share what she learned with a new generation of students.

"Hopefully people go to the panel to get a fully rounded perspective on food," she said. "It's so gratifying to give back."

What: Williams Alumni in Food panel

When: Thursday, Nov. 15, 7 p.m.

Where: Williams College, Griffin Hall, Room 3

Admission: Free

Information: sustainability.williams.edu


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