Penn College course teaches students about food sustainability, security

January 24, 2020

WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. – In a bright, clean kitchen across town from their usual classrooms and laboratories, students majoring in culinary arts and other fields at Pennsylvania College of Technology learn more about food security, one of many considerations students discover as they explore the topic of food “sustainability.”

Food Sustainability is a course designed for students in the college’s hospitality majors, but available to anyone.

“Sustainable foods are grown or raised naturally,” explained student Janelle R. Becker, of Fort Loudon, who is pursuing a degree in culinary arts. “They are not only renewable but regenerative: They help the environment. It is important to not only help people, but also the Earth, to make sure we always have the resources available that we have now.

Throughout the fall semester, the students visited organic farms, a grass-fed beef and dairy farm, the college’s hydroponic garden, and a farm-to-table restaurant.

At Milky Way Farms, in Troy, the students visited the farm’s dairy herd in the pasture, where owner Kim Seeley talked about his decision to employ more sustainable practices. Reducing the use of “moving parts” and chemicals on the farm has created a safer work environment for his family and a healthier herd that produces more nutritious products for customers.

“We have seen such an emergence in vitality since going back to the God-given way of doing things,” Seeley said.

The students tasted the difference in those wholesome products, sampling rich chocolate milk and grass-fed beef burgers.

Those up-close lessons are vital to grasping the concepts of food sustainability, said Chef Michael J. Ditchfield, who developed and teaches the course. He wants the students to learn not only about sustainability in producing, processing and distributing food and beverages, but also about food security and food justice.

That’s why the instructor of hospitality management/culinary arts brought the class to that across-town kitchen for another experiential lesson. The facility is part of the Williamsport branch of the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank. Using a wide variety of products donated to the food bank, the students prepared nutritious, affordable meals — competition-style.

Joining Head Start advocates, the students shopped the Food Bank’s refrigerated and pantry sections and developed recipes that are quick and can be made using ingredients that are typically in a person’s cupboard or that can be purchased through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children.

Each team prepared two recipes. Among the required ingredients was ramen noodles. Food Bank staff members served as judges, rating each dish on its budget friendliness, kid friendliness, cooking ease, flavor, eye appeal, nutritional balance and creativity, among other factors. Named the winner was a honey-glazed chicken bowl, made by students using boiled noodles, sautéed onions, roasted corn and yellow bell peppers, grilled chicken with honey mustard, and low-sodium soy sauce. All of the recipes were shared with Head Start staff, who shared them with families whose children attend Head Start.

Head Start programs promote school readiness for children ages birth to 5 from low-income families. Services focus on early learning, health and family well-being. Head Start is part of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services’ Administration for Children & Families.

Ditchfield says that it is important for students to think about not only how the food is produced and prepared, but also how it is made available to those at every income level.

“We have to look at the whole food system,” Ditchfield explained. “Nationally, our goal was to feed everyone cheaply. We’ve achieved that goal. Now our goal should be having wholesome, nutritious food for everyone, not just those who can afford it.

“Thanks to the generosity of others (like food retailers and farmers who donate to the food bank), we are able to make this happen,” he added.

That message resonates with students.

“For me, sustainability means food is produced in a way that doesn’t harm the environment. But it also means that we grow food in a way that it’s accessible to everyone,” said Christopher J. Schreckengost, a senior from Cadogan pursuing a degree in culinary arts and systems. “Not everyone has the same access to food, whether it’s because of transportation, storage or money."

In addition, he said, organic food can be expensive, especially when you can get something at a fast-food chain that’s cheaper.

Students already envision how they can incorporate sustainable methods into their future careers.

Mallory A. Hoffman, of Pottsville, is a hospitality management student who spent a summer working at a high-end hotel restaurant.

“I saw a lot of food waste,” she said. “I’d like to work on saving more food and donating it to the food bank. I want to volunteer at the food bank.”

Noah E. Siegle, a culinary arts and systems student from Milesburg, likewise dreams of redirecting foods that might otherwise be destined for a landfill.

“I want to own my own restaurant, and I want to reduce waste,” he said. “I want to use scraps as compost. I want to take peels off carrots to make my own infused oils.”

“We all have our own reasons for making these choices,” Ditchfield said. “Some social, some environmental, some health. … Everyone has a right to healthy, nutritious, culturally acceptable food.”

Most of the students in the class are destined for the food industry, which presents great opportunities to impact communities, but not without challenges.

“We make decisions with our customers in mind,” Ditchfield said. “The big dilemma about this is that it’s not any good if it doesn’t also sustain our business. We have to sustain our business, or it’s a waste of our time.”

Students also have ideas for increasing sustainability in the home, including being aware of what packaging labels really mean, recycling as much as possible, planting gardens or eating locally produced food so that it’s fresher and consumes fewer transportation resources, and cooking more from scratch, “so you know what you’re getting.”

“Look more at waste, not only coming from food, but also the packaging around it,” suggests Becker.

Siegle suggests making friends with farmers, which can be as easy as visiting a farmers market.

“You should go out and see what’s around you,” he said. “We have a lot of resources around us that, honestly, a lot of people don’t know about.”

Penn College offers associate degrees in baking and pastry arts and culinary arts, a certificate in professional baking, and a bachelor’s degree in business administration: sport and event management concentration. To learn more, call 570-327-4505 or visit www.pct.edu/bh.

For information about Penn College, a national leader in applied technology education, visit www.pct.edu, email admissions@pct.edu or call toll-free 800-367-9222.

Last Updated January 24, 2020