BAR HARBOR, Maine — Three and a half a million dollars can buy a lot of food, but College of the Atlantic is hoping that it can help pay for something even more meaningful.
The college is using a $3.5 million donation from the Partridge Foundation to fund a food systems studies program that school officials say should help future generations of food producers and consumers learn about more healthful and sustainable food production and distribution practices.
In connection with the new program, the college has created a new faculty position, a Sustainable Food Systems chair. The position has not yet been filled, according to COA officials.
“We envision this program as a platform for creating national and international leadership in meeting the needs of providing healthy and affordable food in the 21st century, in understanding the role of international trade and finance, and in transforming the way that higher education approaches this subject,” David Hales, COA’s president, said in a prepared statement. “With food issues making headlines across the globe, the need for training critical and creative thinkers in the field of sustainable agriculture is absolutely critical.”
The program also creates a partnership between the college and two learning institutions in Europe that, like COA, have established themselves in the field of sustainable agriculture studies. The Organic Research Centre at Elm Farm in England and University of Kassel in Germany, which offers graduate degrees in organic food production and global food policy, will have exchange programs with COA so students can travel to Europe or to the United States to learn about sustainable food production and policy.
Donna Gold, spokeswoman for COA, said that with the exchange program COA students or graduates will be eligible to earn higher degrees at University of Kassel, which does not charge tuition. She said several international students at COA, especially from Central and South America, have expressed interest in learning more about sustainable food production practices so they can help implement those practices back home.
COA has organic community gardens that have been incorporated into its academic studies since its inception in 1972. Since 1999, when COA was given the 73-acre Beech Hill Farm in Mount Desert, the college also has incorporated the farm’s organic practices and local distribution system into its curriculum.
The new college program will go beyond studying organic food production, according to Gold. It will examine distribution systems and economic and poverty issues as well as how food production is affected by international trade and finance. It will build upon areas of study and research that the college already is exploring through the work of COA faculty member Suzanne Morse, she said.
Gold said COA hopes to have many pieces of the new program in place by spring. The college is planning to hold an international conference on sustainable food systems in the fall of 2009.
“We are trying to move it along as fast as possible,” Gold said.