All photos/art by Michael Piazza
Growing up in a modest brick house in Detroit, Michigan, Anne Obelnicki dreamed about farms. “I knew I wanted to have a connection to the land,” she says. Today, all Obelnicki has to do is drive the few miles to work–past a working dairy farm and a field of rising cornstalks–to see her dream made real.
As the thirtysomething chef of one of the country’s most innovative farm-to-table educational programs,Obelnicki lives the “eat local” mantra and is working to prove that this kind of food system can succeed in the real world. Her laboratory: the kitchens and fields of Sterling College, a small liberal-arts school with a focus on environmental studies, set amid the fertile farmlands of Craftsbury Common, Vermont. There, she serves as head chef and director of sustainable food systems, creating not just delicious meals for faculty and students but a small-scale food economy that helps support Northeast Kingdom and other Vermont farmers.
If the day’s menu calls for a raspberry, honey, and corncake trifle, she purchases local meal and cream from Butterworks Farm in Westfield and honey from Honey Gardens in Ferrisburgh, and picks Sterling’s own berries. For grilled chicken with summer herbs, she steps out of the kitchen’s side door to pick basil, cilantro, and mint from the college garden. Aside from some seasonings and oils here and there, “if it’s not raised here at the school,” Obelnicki says, “it’s from someone we know.” Even the wildflowers in mason jars on the dining-room tables are from a Sterling grad’s local farm.
This isn’t mere sentimentality: Obelnicki can detail the nutritional and economic virtues of buying local chicken from Pete’s Greens in Craftsbury rather than from an industrial food supplier. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, she has a master’s degree in agriculture, food, and environment from Tufts University. And she’s living and working in a region that has become a national leader in the local-foods movement, with thriving businesses such as Wolcott’s High Mowing Organic Seeds and Hardwick’s Vermont Soy, and the cheese greats at Jasper Hill Farm in Greensboro. This part of the Green Mountain State is also home to the nonprofit Center for an Agricultural Economy and its Food Venture Center, an incubator for food start-ups, in Hardwick. Obelnicki is part of that movement, running Sterling’s dining hall like a business, yes, but one with a mission.
To further that mission, last year Obelnicki helped launch “Vermont’s Table,” a series of two intensive five-week summer programs in which students–a mix of college kids and career-changers–immerse themselves in all aspects of sustainable food production, from economics to farming practices to making “value-added” products such as cheese, bread, and jam, and even pancetta from the school’s own pigs. The goal is for students to be able to support or create their own local food networks, whether they go on to become chefs or cheesemakers or farmers.
“I want students to understand how this system works–what makes it sustainable,” Obelnicki says. “The alchemy of it all–the economic, ecological, social, cultural [dynamics]. A lot of people are focused on the environmental aspect, but you’ll go out of business if that’s all you’re focused on.”
Students concede that five weeks doesn’t make them experts per se, but it’s a start. “I’m more aware of where I get my food and how it came to market in the first place,” says Geoffrey Setiawan, a budding chef from Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas. “And the big thing? Knowing simple food can be really good food.”
At this time of year, Sterling’s gardens are bursting with beets, herbs, and raspberries, while tomatoes are filling the school’s hothouses. Chickens, cows, and goats dot the pastures, and draft horses plow the land. The bounty at hand dictates today’s menu of herbed potato salad, Asian cabbage slaw, and trifle–an abundance not normally associated with school cafeterias.
Obelnicki reminds her students that all those daily decisions about what to eat and where to buy it add up to something tangible. “Every choice we make about eating is a choice about how we shape our landscapes,” she says. Thanks to food activists like Anne Obelnicki, Vermont’s landscape of farmlands and rolling green pastures now has a much better chance of survival.