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Fertile Ground: The Full Discussion


In late August, we brought together some of the founding faculty of the new food studies certificate program for a meal at the College Farm and a discussion about the origins of the program, and what food studies means for Dickinson and beyond. Excerpts of that conversation were printed in the fall issue cover story, “Fertile Ground.” For those who wish to absorb the full discussion, it is available below.

How food studies got started, why faculty are interested, what's exciting about it

Heather Bedi: For me, as a new faculty member, particularly being at a small liberal-arts college, it was really great to find a community of folks from all across campus that I could have exciting and intellectual conversations with. Those conversations felt like a moment that I haven't had on campus with a larger group. I've had it with small groups of people. We all looked at food from different perspectives, but we could come together and have interesting conversations that maybe weren't directly related to something I was writing or researching but that spurred ideas, [and] then inspired me to think about my research in other ways. There was a certain energy in bringing that group of people together and finding another niche at Dickinson.

Neil Leary: There are a couple of things that attracted me to the idea of a food studies certificate at Dickinson, one of which is the work we're doing with infusing sustainability into the curriculum, which can be a fairly abstract set of ideas. Food is something that students are dealing with at least three times a day. It's part of their daily practice, a daily ritual, and they're interested in it. They want to know things about the nutritional value of it, where it comes from, the conditions it was grown in. The richness of the questions you get can get into by just starting off with food—It's kind of an easy entry. Almost from the day I've arrived at Dickinson, I've had this conversation—with Jenn [Halpin], with others [at the college's] farm—and we've done a good job of building connections between the farm and the curriculum, but [those connections are] kind of ad hoc, not deliberate, not coordinated. So I've been thinking, we're just underutilizing the potential of this farm. We would talk about what we would do about that, and it took a while before enough people were like, ‘Yeah, it's time to get serious about this.’ 

Susan Rose: Jenn really was spearheading a whole lot of this.

Jenn Halpin: I think I'd just echo what I've already heard, but also add a little about infrastructure ... the fact that the Dining Hall is independently owned, that it's not contracted, enables the farm to have a relationship with the Dining Hall. Also, I've been at Dickinson for 13 years, and over those 13 years I've seen students come in with greater awareness, experience and passion on the subject of food. They're much more aware, in terms of their consumption, and it's nice to meet them where they are and take them further. 

Luca Trazzi: What was really exciting was how easy it was and how natural it was. We didn't really have to do anything strange or complicated. The food studies certificate was already happening and has been happening for several semesters—possibly, years. All we had to do was some coordination and find out the courses. The excitement that was in every department was impressive. I loved the fact that we could interact with other divisions ... I really believe in this certificate program, because we made it multidisciplinary. We're obliging the students to be exposed to all divisions. That is a liberal-arts education.

Susan Rose: I'll follow up on that. That's one of the things that is really exciting to me, that it has happened organically—as the farm is also organic. A lot of work went into this from various quarters, but you're right, things were already there. There's a matter of coordinating and highlighting the very strong interest among faculty and among students. For me, there's also the interest in equality and labor, and the fact that we can be thinking about not just culture and foodways, but also the political economy and global commodity chains, the local food movement and food market—Who's actually picking those apples in Adams County and how much we are paying for them?— from [a] social change and social movement [perspective]. It [has] so many aspects—soil, right thinking about earth sciences or chemistry or biology, the humanities and the social sciences. 

Emily Pawley: It's wonderful to teach with something that's very familiar. I start with the iconic tomato, because it's like a law, you have to talk about tomatoes. When you bring a tomato into class, the students are like, a tomato? And then you start to talk about who touched it, literally who touched it, and all of the things it touched on its way here. Immediately, they realize that this is a concrete and familiar object, but they don't know anything about it. So they can have that moment: I know it, I'm interested in it. Also, if you drop [the tomatoes] in class and they bounce, the students get ridiculously excited. That kind of step out is very easy when you have an artifact. And you have the farm—all of my students, their most amazing part of the semester is always coming to the farm. They'll say, talking to Jenn and seeing the animals, and eating a pea flower—every one of my students ate a pea flower—they say, ‘I didn't know you could eat flowers,’ but then that brought their attention to the things you were saying. It wasn't just like, I was in a green space and it was exciting. They suddenly feel invested in it. 

Maria Bruno: For me, it's funny—you arrive somewhere and you get a job, and you're just excited you got a job. I remember standing in line to get our pictures, the new faculty, and I was next to Emily, and she was like, I study cows, and I said, I study quinoa! And then I met Siobhan, and she studies food, and I thought suddenly, how did I land here? There's this place where you have all these people in different departments who are essentially interested in the same things that I'm interested in. And of course, the farm. It happened so organically, because for a lot of us that's already what we were doing, so to be able to expand it beyond my own classes... there already were groups of students who were seeing those connections, but with the certificate program, those connections are going to be facilitated. I'm excited for what that's going to bring.

Crossing Boundaries and Forging New Paths

Siobhan Phillips: It's great, because you can't really do food studies without being multidisciplinary. In a sense, Dickinson is cutting edge just by being who we are. Our students are experiencing a discipline that's relatively young. We're really doing something that takes advantage of what we have here but is also forging new paths.

Neil Leary: We joined the Eco League two years ago now—I don't know that all of [the Eco League schools] have food studies. Four of the five schools have farms. That's going to be a good resource for us.

Siobhan Phillips: This is the kind of place where scholarship is emerging at intersections, while also respecting the integrity and methods of various disciplines, and that's something we at a liberal-arts college can do really well. It's something that can happen here because of the flexibility and collegiality that we have.

Susan Rose: And I think one of those intersections is with global education and sustainability, food studies and health studies. So there's just tremendous synergy. Also, getting together with folks: A lot of the meetings were over meals. That also happens with students—with the intro and the capstone course, we have really built in experiential components. It's really about the mind and the heart and the soul, and the ways in which civic engagement is involved, like [working] with Project SHARE, finding ways in which food stamps can be applied to the farmer's market. 

Siobhan Phillips: It crosses places you wouldn't even think of at first. We have great resources here in food history, anthropology and in culture, but also Amy Farrell's work on fat studies, Suman's work on eating disorders, just across the college, Adrienne's work in poetry. There are all sorts of connections, even beyond the areas that would naturally be part of food studies.

Luca Trazzi: I think it will help or inspire other faculty members to either do more or start a brand new course.

Susan Rose: We have a lot of faculty in language departments who are really supportive. This may be a good place for everyone to talk about their home departments and interests.

Luca Trazzi: We had been offering courses—Sylvie Davidson, who's one of the pioneers, she did that in Bologna, in France. So we kept the momentum going, we offered a food studies course. Personally, I never really did any research on food studies. My background is in linguistics. So I came up with language, linguistics, related to food, and I did some research on that. I took a course on nutrition and I related it to linguistics, and I just became fond of the subject.

Maria Bruno: I'm in the anthropology department. My research is in the origins of agriculture in the Andes. The courses I teach, I do archaeology and world history, and of course, the history of our species is in how we got our food and how we changed it. There's already food in that class, and I'm adding even more to it, connecting it to the Clarke Forum speakers this year. I teach environmental archaeology, how archaeologists study the human environmental relationships, and again, food is one of the main activities. My emphasis is on local food, so we definitely talk about community exchange and global food movements. Because I work in the Americas, I'm interested in indigenous food movements. The speaker we're having this year, Winona LaDuke, suggested by Jenn Halpin—again, because we wanted to get into food justice and food security, not only in how you produce your own food but issues that Native American communities are facing, like health, and [there are] a lot of local complications there. A lot of groups are looking toward their native foodways as not only a way to improve their health but also take back their sovereignty, access to their lands, rights over them. I am really excited, as she's really involved in a lot those issues.

Faculty Connections

Emily Pawley: I'm in the history department. I'm their second environmental historian, and I borrow a lot from Maria and call her up. I had actually come to Dickinson before, and I said, 'They have a farm! I could teach environmental history at a place with a farm!' For me, because I'm a historian of agriculture and I study food, animals and plants as artifacts of human culture, the fact everybody else also wants to talk about food is very exciting for me. I think one of the things I appreciated—the three of us came in together, Maria, Siobhan and I. Being able to have those conversations from the beginning.

Susan Rose: I think one of the really exciting things about Dickinson in particular, really, generally, we talk about things with one another. We talk about research, and it's a small enough place that the faculty really come together. We'll share what we're doing, we'll give lectures in other classes—which also means we're connecting with more students—[on the] kinds of collaborative work we do, the kinds of interdisciplinary work. So I think that's major.

Neil Leary: The first book group that we did, the conversations that we had. We're reading about the Victorian era—just total catastrophe, disaster, famine, starvation, politically corrupt, deliberately made famine—and we're having a blast, talking about it. That was all Emily, of course. At least 30 faculty members had participated in some way in one of the study groups during the last three semesters. 

Siobhan Phillips: In some of those discussions, there was real scholarly intention and discussion that I think really emerge, and I think made it that much more valuable. I'm in English and I'm a scholar in 20th century, mostly poetry. I teach creative writing, I'm a poet, and I also teach essays. I taught a class called Writing about Food that was about how food helps us express identity and culture and ethics and political awareness and all sorts of other things. This is in sync with my colleague Adrienne Su, who is a much-distinguished poet and has written a lot about food and also nonfiction essays about food. There was this interest in the creative side of this, and then Adrienne also developed a course on the literary side about food, so there was just a space for me to explore that interest. And with the group and readings, I got a chance to add to my involvement in the college. It's been really fun, because I get to think about teaching outside of my own department and teaching with different methodologies and in different ways. When we were developing the food 201 class, and I was thinking about what I needed to do to bone up on everything, and through my conversations with Jenn—who knows everything, I'm convinced of it—I was also thinking back to those initial conversations with all those faculty members. We had a huge whiteboard, and it was full of terms and questions. That was a moment of incredible energy, and it was like we're never going to be able to do all of this, obviously, but the kind of ambition and excitement of that is something I wanted to convey, or at least I wanted to be able to show our students, OK, you're never going to encompass this subject, but that's why it's such a fascinating subject, and here are all the different ways it can possibly go.

Neil Leary: And we really struggled with this, because it wasn't just one whiteboard. We really filled this long whiteboard at least three times with different ideas, concepts, relationships. And each time, trying to organize and structure the ways of thinking about, exploring, analyzing, talking about food in different ways. It was always like we had a different take on how do we structure and organize this, because there are many different ways we can come at this. It was exciting to see all these faculty members from different disciplines with these different angles. 

Susan Rose: It's really cool that you have an English professor and the director of the farm co-teaching the first course.

Food in the Wider World

Heather Bedi: In my research I ended up looking at food without actually trying to look at it, because I look at environmental activism and social movements, predominantly in India but now in Bangladesh and Pennsylvania as well. Mostly how people have experienced and contested extraction of coal, iron ore but also industrialization. The reason that agriculture and food came into this is because a lot of what people were contesting was the loss of access to their own agricultural fields, but also the lack of their own kitchen gardens if they didn't own land, that access and control over their own food. Right now I'm working on a paper with another scholar, thinking about how food becomes a proxy to critique broader neoliberal trends that are happening in India. He works in West Bengal, and my work is in the southern coastal part. [We're] looking at how people are evoking ideas of rice to critique industrialization and mining in very particular ways. It's interesting to think about how those narratives of culture are becoming narratives of protest. 

Food is in all my classes in the environmental studies department. I'm teaching a FYS on food justice, and the class is completely integrated with the Clarke Forum series on food, so we're going to all the talks. We're doing readings from the authors, speakers as well. They're going to the Hugh Acheson lunch, they're coming to the farm, we're going to the Gettysburg farmers market, which has been really successful at increasing access to populations across socioeconomic levels. We're going to look at that to see what has made it so successful. We're going to the Broad Street Market in Harrisburg, and they're going to have to interview producers there who are also selling food. In my environmental connections class we also are looking at agricultural and labor practices to understand rights, but also to understand pesticides and the history of Rachel Carson and DDT, and how we can understand the history and how we understand agriculture in the U.S. It's a broad survey class, but [helps students] start to understand some of those things, and the point of that class is to get students to develop critical thinking skills, just to get them thinking about where that tomato comes from. (I do something similar with a banana. We try to trace where this come from, how does it get here, who are the laborers? I have an assignment where the students have to eat something, talk to who they got it from, trace through where it comes from, and how many miles it traveled. What does it look like, why does it appear that way, and who grew it? They're not going to be able to answer most of those questions, but the idea is to just start the conversation.)

I also teach environmental justice, and we spend time on social justice, on environmental and social inequality around ideas of place, what access people have to food but also where they live and how that determines their access to food. The final project for that class is on this idea of just sustainability. They don't have to focus on food, but a lot of them look at their own neighborhoods, and the project is to help them understand environmental inequality where they live, and a lot of them end up looking at food deserts. It's just a really interesting way for them to interrogate what sort of food options are there: Are there supermarkets, do you need a car to get there? What are the socioeconomic dynamics behind that?

In my other class, Environment & Society, we did a project last spring and we'll do it again, with Farmers on the Square, with the program that Susan mentioned earlier. They have a double market bucks program, so people on federal food benefits can get double their money at the market. There wasn't enough money last summer, they had a deficit of funds, and my students wrote a proposal. Ultimately, the person from the board took the best proposals, compiled them and submitted to a foundation and got $2,000. That's something that we'll do next spring and integrate that more. For civic engagement, with the Mellon grant, if anyone wants to work on that, I think there are a lot of neat connections with what Asunción [Arnedo-Aldrich] does, and other people. Because we want to look at how we look at these issues within our own community. In my FYS, one of the students said, ‘Oh, I want to look at inequality and lack of food access in developing countries,’ and I said, 'Remember that we're in a food desert right here in Carlisle.' The area where Dickinson is, and further out, is considered a food desert. It's just interesting for them to look at these trends globally but also to think what's actually happening here in a local way.

Emily Pawley: There are branches of the food movement that have really thought about, that are starting to think more about, race, about inequality, also about gender and reproductive labor: Who is supposed to do all this at-home cooking, when is this time supposed to happen. That's particularly hard. If you are working two jobs, and you're a mom, is it your duty to home cook? I think a lot of those questions are being asked more in the last five years. There are a lot of people who have read a lot of Michael Pollan, and there are people who are reading a lot of critiques of Michael Pollan. In general, I would say the critique is also now pretty standard. One of the things that struck me, in a conversation that came out of a Clarke Forum seminar was that this is, the food movement also has a lot of other people in it who don't look like Michael Pollan, and they don't live in Berkeley, and they were before him. So, California is the center of union activism, farm worker union activism in the U.S., and as a result, they have a really differently built system from Florida. It's not a fair one, but it's a lot better. That is not a result of this other food movement. There are movements for environmental and food justice in cities that we're thinking about that don't come out of this loud, slow-food, predominantly white food group. When we critique the food movement, we don't want to erase the fact that the movement is founded on lots of groups that don't look like the stereotype.

Siobhan Phillips: I think when you look at things in a historical perspective, it helps to gain more awareness on the diversity of ways people have worked for food justice and food sovereignty, and also to contextualize what is called the foodie movement and what many kinds of conventional wisdom might either laud or dismiss. The foodie movement has a very long history. It's really impossible to adequately think about that without knowing more of that history.

Neil Leary: Sustainability is not homogeneous; there are lots of different approaches to it, but probably the most common way of thinking about it is, it's a lot of issues that are being brought together and how do we pursue a variety of goals? It's not environmentalism, it's not just another aspect of an environmental movement. There's some very important aspects that are interested in social justice and equity issues, economic livelihoods and inclusion. So food provides a set of issues, problems, where, for sustainability, in terms of education, a liberal-arts college allows you to bring all these kinds of questions in ways so that students can see them in a very pragmatic, everyday way, and be able to understand things about access to food. ... It provides lots of opportunities for really rich conversations. One of the things I'm always trying to do with our sustainability initiative is to reinforce the idea that it's not just the environment. Food is just another set of issues where the environment is very central and important, but it's just one. For me, that makes it fertile ground for sustainability studies.

Jenn Halpin: I'll add that courses like Spanish for Farm Workers really help open the eyes of students who aren't aware of domestic issues, even local issues, and I think Mosaics play a huge role in this as well.

Susan Rose: And [Mosaics] really help [students] to understand the global-local connections, the ways in which they're really connected. So we've done Mosaics in Cuba and Venezuela, in particular, on sustainable agriculture, in terms of food and access. And the Mexican Migration mosaics. 

The popularization of food

Susan Rose: In many ways it actually helped. It brought many people into an awareness of the issues.

Heather Bedi: And Barbara Kingsolver too.

Siobhan Phillips: And Michael Pollan has shifted his narrative as well. Before he was saying, ‘Oh, everyone should go and have their own farm,’ and he has a more nuanced approach to food issues that recognize privilege but also lack of access, that that's not an option for everyone. If you actually look at the trajectory of his writing, he's shifted the way that he's talking about it. At some level, he's responded to those critiques.

Susan Rose: As has Kingsolver, in Animal, Vegetable, Mineral, as well as in The Lacuna. First it was this whole anthem, having your farm and moving with the whole family, and then the next fictional book’s making a critique of what that can mean for women in particular.

Siobhan Phillips: Yes, as in the part of Animal, Vegetable, Mineral, when she said, ‘everyone has a breadmaker gathering dust on the shelf somewhere!’ I think that's when I ... I don't know what I did. It was her husband who was actually making the bread but it didn't really matter, it was just the idea that you had appliances that you forgot about. 

Emily Pawley: One of the things that's really useful ... I try not to hate bridge people, as I call them. Michael Pollan was reading Julie Guffman and other scholars, for example, and who translate them for a large audience, because it is hard for us in a professional context, and also given our training, to produce work for a broader audience. But also it's been very helpful to have Pollan to argue with, and to have Animal, Vegetable, Mineral to argue with ...

Susan Rose: To have students read that—and often some of the problematic texts are some of the best teaching tools.

Siobhan Phillips: It also creates a space for that kind of reporting, that people are aware of food and investigations into food and analysis of food as a topic, as a beat, as an area in which it might be legitimate to spend some years of your life, or months of your life thinking about. That's all to the good. The space that some of this popularization has cleared has some really interesting work being done in it, both scholarly and general interest stuff that's been done and gotten more attention because of that popularization.

Neil Leary: One of the things I try to nudge students away from is, they're very good at criticizing things that you give them to read. Well, the author didn't make this argument or ignored this or missed this or the other thing. I try to get them to think about, do you in every conversation you have, bring the full breadth of knowledge and thinking ... Every piece of writing doesn't need to do all of it. So let's start with, what is the author trying to do with this piece, and is it effective in doing that, and not a criticism of this is bad because it didn't do these things, but what else would you do? What would you build on?

Maria Bruno: I'm really excited that Elizabeth Kolbert is the Rose-Walters prize winner. She's an example of the kind of science writer who goes out and learns about what scientists are doing and then tries to convey that in a public forum. I'm having her in my class to talk about megafauna extinctions, the Pleistocene in North America, the large mastodons and things like that. It's interesting because—I remember Michael Shellenberger here, people love to say humans killed off the megafauna in North America, that's a really popular notion, and the data don't support it at all. There's more support that it was climate change, and it probably didn't help that humans came and started eating those things. But in her chapter about it, and in the end, because her book is about extinction, I'm excited to have the opportunity to talk with her about how she collected her information, how she goes about constructing her argument. In my class I tell my students, these are often debates, and the things that people like she and Michael Pollan synthesize for us are actually debates that go on in the sciences, and how a journalist learns about this, and then writes about it, because we're essentially asking our students to do that in the papers we give them. 

Neil Leary: For that particular one, it wasn't so clear how she constructed it, but in many of the other chapters, what I really like about her is, it is really slogging in the field with scientists who are leaders in the area. She didn't just read stuff about it, she went and spoke with these scientists in their field research areas. 

Siobhan Phillips: I think that's what Dickinson does well, in that we have all these great speakers but we also have a wonderful science writer coming and speaking about climate change. So through class or through discussions we can pull together some of those themes.

Emily Pawley: On the big popular change—all environmental historians used to teach a piece by Richard White called Are You an Environmentalist or Do You Work for Living? It was published in 1990, and it was basically saying the environmental movement has demonized people who work on the land. It's basically that we hate lumberjacks, we hate farmers, we hate miners. That's ridiculous, because all of you who are reading this are sitting on the products, around the products, produced by those industries, and you've managed to divorce yourself from the work of the land. I used to teach it, and students would have their mind blown! Now I can't assign it, but it's good, because I gave it to students at Dickinson, and they said, we don't hate farmers, we spend a lot of time thinking about farmers and work on the land. But we have changed the way—the slow food movement, the popular discussion of food has really changed the way that environmental movement talked. 

What readers need to know about the certificate program

Jenn Halpin: I would love for alumni to recognize that the food studies certificate is the culmination of their interests and efforts over the years. As people who have taught or advised students in these areas of interest—within anthropology, history, English, biology, chemistry—yes, that it's because of those efforts, it's a combined effort, but if it hadn't been students expressing their interest through their course of study, we wouldn't be trying to meet that need. I think that's something really nice to share—it's because of their efforts, in their research and independent studies.

Neil Leary: The certificate is an example of how faculty and the curriculum at Dickinson evolve in innovative ways in response to things that matter. There are a set of problems, issues, questions, that really fundamentally matter. This isn't just an academic interest, this is real life stuff that people need to grapple with. There are very tangible repercussions, and what I've been impressed with during my time at Dickinson is that what faculty teach and the shape that the curriculum takes responds to questions, issues, problems that matter. 

Siobhan Phillips: Students can see how the studies they do of long ago things or things that seem kind of abstract or far away are right on their plate.

Heather Bedi: To get back to Emily's point early on, with the tomato, for example, is that we're encouraging students to have those habits of mind, to think about something we eat every day, we buy, we think through, where does it come from, what are the labor standards for the person who grew that tomato, what are the implications if you can't afford it, what does it do to your body, where does the waste go? Having them think about this in a holistic way is something that they participate in as well. Again, really emphasizing that this is something we all do, but that really differentiates people within place but also across place.

Emily Pawley: One of the things that worries me sometimes when teaching about environmental problems and social problems—and all of you have heard me say this—is that I worry that I'm paralyzing the students. I talk about huge structural problems all the time, and students are afraid to eat and nothing will ever be good again. But somehow when they talk about food, they're able to talk about solutions, not just for the food system—it stands in for worries about inequality, worries about climate change, the big worries—so when they're talking about how they're going to change things within the food system, it gives them some purchase on it, that they start to look like tractable problems, but something they can take a step to change that is not just an individual consumer decision or something at the micro level.

Heather Bedi: There's these really interesting glimmers of hope, Vermont requiring that every agricultural GMO product be labeled in a particular way, this is still being held up in Congress, but it's interesting to see that there have been efforts to increase awareness about what we're putting in our bodies. There are some ways and tangible paths in which people have been able to influence change. There are ways you can engage productively.

Neil Leary: I think the phrase that Emily used about individual choices as consumers, that's sort of like the far end of the spectrum, change the world, or I can make the world better as an individual consumer by consuming right. Helping students to find some middle space where it goes beyond them as an individual but having some confidence that it is worth doing, even knowing that it falls short of changing the world.

Emily Pawley: The other side of that is that we say what we need to do is change human nature, and that's when I start to cry. 

Neil Leary: There's an economist, Bill Easterly, who used to work at the World Bank and has been very critical of its work. There's a very pessimistic reading of his stuff, we really have no idea how to make development happen in ways that really are equitable and cause real good to happen at this large scale. His approach is to convey the message that there's a whole lot of good we can do at a smaller scale. Making life better for some number of people is always good. The fact that you can't change human behavior is not a reason to step back and say, ‘I'm not responsible here.’

Siobhan Phillips: Food does touch everyone, and it can be really powerful when you sense something as being wrong or unjust and to give students concepts to express and talk about it, and then they can use those in political praxis. Those terms can do real good in the world, because they're ways for students, they're levers for students to put pressure in various places. There's work in even offering conceptual help for all of us. That's part of what I've loved about the journey of food studies and learning more about it. 

Susan Rose: For students, it's not just that we can all hold hands and get along, but for a lot of Dickinson students, in terms of diversity, of having the Middle East Club or the East Asian Club, or Italian Club, just coming together over food and having those conversations. The interaction with other people and other groups, it's food that brings people together to have conversations that they might not otherwise have. We are sort of a foodie place. We can't deny it.

Jenn Halpin: It's wonderful to be part of an academic institution that recognizes its place in terms of geographical location and takes advantage of that. It doesn't feel separate from it, it's making ways to be inclusive.

Susan Rose: So the community outreach too—I was thinking about the number of farmers that you've brought together, and the farmers market, very different contexts and backgrounds, but the appreciation of not only where the apple or the tomato comes from, or the chocolate or the coffee, but whose labor is there. The respect for others and the kinds of labor they do, within the local and the global contexts, is really important.

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Published October 18, 2016