Rather than distributing flyers, Yale paraphernalia or safe-sex manuals, the Yale Sustainable Food Project bribed incoming freshmen with a different sort of offering: ripe cherry tomatoes.
And not just freshmen were drawn to the small, ruby red bounty. The produce distributors managed to temporarily distract both Yale College Dean Peter Salovey and President Richard Levin from their Freshman Move-In Day responsibilities — both only turned back to the chaos of Old Campus after soliciting promises of crates of the fruit to bring back to their offices.
Salovey and Levin’s connection through a few sample tomatoes is emblematic of the greater mission of the YSFP, a mission the group tries to exemplify with its much-lauded farm. At the forefront of a nationwide trend to bring locally grown food to college campuses, Yale announced this week that it would increase the YSFP’s budget by roughly 50 percent. But how is the farm, where a social scene thrives right alongside the yellow watermelons, really affecting the Yale organic movement?
Tucked away on Edwards Street at the top of Science Hill, the farm is akin to a green oasis, an escape from the often gray colors of Yale life. Simply by entering the farm — via a small stone staircase flanked by pockets of bright yellow-and-purple flowers and dying cardoon plants — one is transported into the world of the garden. Two imposing greenhouses, erected by student interns over the summer, shield stalks of ripening tomatoes in all shades of red, green and yellow.
Because of the present flourishing state of the garden, it is hard to imagine that only three years ago the space was a grassy wasteland. Unused and unnoticed by the Yale community, the lot was “littered with Doritos bags, torn-up purses and beer bottles,” according to Josh Viertel, associate director of the YSFP.
Fueled by the dedicated work of a group of students who campaigned to Levin about a lack of organic and locally grown options in the dining halls, the YSFP was formed, and the farm was constructed in 2001. Since its foundation three years ago, the YSFP has brought locally grown and organic foods into Yale dining halls. But very little of that food has actually been from the YSFP farm.
Sam Landenwitsch ’06, who has been working on the farm for over a year, said it is a “common misconception” that the food from the farm goes to Berkeley. Calling the farm “more of an educational space,” Landenwitsch said the farm tries to make the implications of buying locally more hands-on for the Yale community. The farm hosts panels and classes in its attempt to educate the community on topics such as sustainable food and organic farming — dialogues that continue outside of the YSFP’s sponsorship.
“For lunch, when they have grass-fed beef, and I explain the ethical choice to someone … then I walk by them again in the dining hall, and they’re explaining it to someone else,” Landenwitsch said.
The farm’s food actually is primarily sold at a market on Wooster Street. Viertel said he could not offer an accurate estimate of how much food the farm produced, adding that it sells approximately 24 truckloads worth of produce during the season from the first week of June to the last week of October. The farm also ships a case of produce to Union League Cafe and Central Steakhouse each week.
So while Salovey and Levin may be eating tomatoes from the farm itself, the tomato salad students eat at Berkeley is actually made from ingredients from local farms in New England, according to Viertel. Though it would be possible for the farm to one day supply the dining hall, Viertel emphasized that that is not the farm’s purpose.
“[Supplying the dining hall] would negatively impact our educational mission and undermine our central mission of supporting local farmers,” Viertel said.
Yale’s pilot program has marked a nationwide movement, said Kristen Markley, the Food to College director at the Community Food Security Coalition. Melina Shannon-DiPietro, associate director of the YSFP, said she fields calls from schools across the country who hope to include organic foods in their menus on a weekly basis.
Louella Hill, food system consultant to Brown University Dining Services, said that Yale’s program is considered the benchmark for schools, like Brown, who are considering launching similar programs.
“Yale is the most well-known [sustainable food] program in the country,” she said. “[It seems like] they’re in ‘The New York Times’ every week.”
As the farm has expanded with new additions (such as a brick oven installed this summer), it now attracts a group of students who, whether shoveling dirt at the farm itself or discussing their work in the dining halls, are utterly committed to the one-acre plot of land up Science Hill.
For many, such as Chelsea Purvis ’07, the head of Food from the Earth, which manages the farm, it serves as a place to take time out from a hectic schedule and appreciate a different sort of work.
“Yale can be a stressful place,” she said. “The farm is just a place to get outdoors, to get your hands in the ground. The rewards are different than the rewards for papers and tests. You can actually pick them out of the ground and eat them.”
Shannon-DiPietro recalled a time this summer when students — in the thick of the garden — were able to make the farming experience their own.
After the farm interns asked her to teach them how to concoct tomato sauce, Shannon-DiPietro was in the midst of walking them through the steps. While their sauce was still in the tomato juice stage, the students were momentarily distracted as they erupted into an animated discussion on the best ways to make a Bloody Mary.
“It’s just a convivial atmosphere out here,” Dreier said. “It’s a release from the ‘normal’ aspects of the day. After a day of good, hard work, people will just sit around and chat while they’re shelling beans.”
Viertel — a Harvard graduate with a life-long love for the “connection between land and food” — recounted a moment last week which solidified for him the role the farm has come to play on campus. After the kick-off pizza party thrown at the farm last week, which attracted over 100 Yale community members, a female student approached Viertel in tears.
“She said she had been thinking that she would take the year off, that there wasn’t the community here that she wanted,” Viertel recounted. “Choking back tears, she said, ‘But now, I feel like I can come here to the farm and treat this as my home.'”
So while the farm may make the news right alongside Alice Waters and Berkeley College, students are quick to acknowledge that it is just one aspect of the larger YSFP umbrella, and indeed means much more to them than just a news clipping.
“Sure, there is a political and ecological sense to what happens on the farm,” Viertel said. “But really, this is about fun. It’s about working and sharing food. It gives students a sense of community, and it’s phenomenal to see it work.”