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Vegan or not vegan, is that the question this January?

Harvest lunch

The popularity of Veganuary, becoming vegan for the month of January, has increased as a result of awareness of the ecological impact of excessive meat consumption. But now there’s a new campaign for ‘Regenuary’, the idea we should focus on eating food that has been produced with regenerative agricultural practices.

The Head of Food at Schumacher College, Julia Ponsonby (left of picture) explains to Will Kemp how food plays an important role not just in the community here, but in our approach to learning too.

WK: As it’s Veganuary at the moment, I thought it would be a good time to think about how Schumacher College is a non-meat-eating college – how did that come about initially??

JP: When Schumacher College was founded back in 1991, there were already several good reasons for embracing a vegetarian diet. These reasons dovetailed and re-enforced each other in such a way that it must have seen sparklingly obvious to our founders at Dartington that the new college should opt for a vegetarian diet which would reflect the ecological principles at its core, including a deep spiritual commitment to animal welfare and a concern to offer a wholesome diet that optimised the health of land and people alike. On a practical level cooking a meat free menu meant students could be included in the preparation process without health and safety training since there is a higher risk of food poisoning when meat and fish are included.

From the outset participants were organised into workgroups and the two hour evening cooking slot has always been an enjoyable and creative time – an opportunity for team building and sharing the joy of nurturing others. In fact cooking together has always been one of the main avenues in which the head-hands-heart triad that make up Schumacher learning has been realised. (It’s only now with the pandemic that we have had to keep students out of the kitchen and this is greatly missed).

Although our menus include lots of vegan food, we’ve always kept dairy and eggs as part of the mix. Devon is known for its dairy so milk and cheese are very much part of the local diet. For many people giving up meat for the first time having familiar sources of protein such as eggs and cheese available makes the transition easier when they come to live in the college. In recent years the numbers of people opting to follow an exclusively vegan diet has grown to about one sixth – but by contrast, there are still many people who will stand up for eating organically produced local meat and fish and feel it contributes an essential part of their diet, even if they don’t have it very often and know it’s not an option when eating at the college.     

WK: Regenuary is a new twist on the Veganuary idea, i.e. eating only food that has been produced using regenerative agricultural practices in January. Can you say anything about how eating certain animal products might be beneficial to the holistic approach to food production? 

JP: Sometimes talk about sustainability just doesn’t seem quite enough. At what level do we want to sustain our environment – surely not at a level that is already quite degraded? More and more, as awareness of the climate and ecological emergency soaks in, conversation has turned to the importance of a regenerative economy which includes regenerative agriculture. At the beginning of the college Stephan Harding was employed as an ecologist for Dartington as well as a teacher at Schumacher College and the participants would go out with him to plant forests and hedgerows regenerating the environment that had been harmed by earlier visions of an agricultural revolution based on huge fields, exotic plantations and intensive production. With hindsight the removal of hedgerows increased run off and the leaching of nutrients from fields whereas a mixed agricultural system including grass-fed animals helps to sequester carbon as well as other nutrients. As well as opting for a vegetarian diet our food policy has always been to buy local, organic and seasonal food where possible. More and more, as our own gardens have developed, this has meant growing our own food (which participants also join in whether they are an economics student, a design student or a poetics student). Having animals grazing on the land helps to manage the soil and enrich it.

A lot of the issues around carbon and methane contributing to global warming have come about due to the movement of food around the world and the over intensive production of meat and dairy. At Schumacher College we tread lightly on the earth – combining dairy products and eggs with many vegan menus and always lots of vegetables. In recent years our garden team have been experimenting with growing more and more dried beans so that vegan protein can be locally available all year round. Elsewhere on the Dartington Estate students may well choose to go and eat local meat during their time off enjoying the good local cooking at the Green Table cafe for example. Not all students who come to the college are vegetarian, but almost everyone seems to be in agreement that our food needs to be healthy, diverse and as local as possible – and include loads of veggies, as Green Table and White Hart menus demonstrate.

Whether we eat meat or not, we all need to embrace a predominantly plant-based diet so we can contribute to the world’s food related emissions being reduced. According to the UN, meat and dairy accounts for 14.5% of all human-made greenhouse gas emissions. The balance of the diet we offer at the College reflects this undeniable need to cut down consumption of animal products and we often find that when people go home they start cooking more vegetarian food, because they have been inspired by the tasty diversity of our cooking.  

WK: How do you keep your meals varied when you are faced with a bumper harvest of one particular crop, like a glut of carrots for example?

JP: It can certainly be a challenge when one crop turns into a bumper crop and, all of a sudden, the gardeners need you to use loads of carrots because the carrot fly is spreading or something like that! When this happens, our aim is to not only think up loads of different dishes using the same thing but to get as much of it processed and in the freezer as soon as we can because we know we’ll really appreciate having it later on. Of course, carrot fly is a cheeky example because normally our carrots nowadays don’t get carrot fly and they can be kept for many months in a clamp which is a traditional method for keeping carrots cool and fresh in the earth. In fact there are lots of methods for keeping good produce and making it last longer and when we do have to use a lot in one go the gardeners and growing students are amazing at pitching in and helping process the produce for the freezer or turn it into a chutney.

I do also enjoy the challenge of thinking up different dishes using the same ingredient e.g. roast squash with rosemary; squash soup with warm spices; stuffed squash with tomato sauce; pumpkin pie; squash croquettes etc etc. I am always curious at which point people will start complaining they are getting too much of the same thing and it seems the complaints are very few and really only come when people don’t like a particular vegetable. Usually everyone appreciates that we need to eat more of something when it’s in season – so cooking more of it is part of the re-learning to live in harmony with earth’s cyclical abundance.  

WK: I know that preserving is also an important part of food culture at Schumacher College. Why do you think there has been such a revival of interest in processes like fermentation and pickling recently?

JP: We are lucky to have had Sandor Elix Katz coming and teaching at the College a few times. Together with his friend Frank Cook who was a student at the College on the Holistic Science MSc, Sandor and Frank put fermenting firmly on the agenda at Schumacher College and we are lucky to have had this carried on by Voirrey Watterson and Faze Ali over many years and for many students to have been interested enough to keep it going as well. People seem to know that lacto-fermented foods are really good for us as well as an effective age-old form of preservation. A spoonful a day keeps the doctor away! We also preserve vegetables with vinegar and make chutneys and traditional sugar-based jams so that there is always homemade jam available at breakfast, normally made with our own fruit such as plums, blackcurrants, raspberries and strawberries.

In addition to this we have for many years harvested Dartington apples and held an apple pressing and pasteurising weekend so that we can have local apple juice available for breakfast all year round. We also maintain sourdough starters to make sourdough bread and one of these has been adopted by the Green Table so it’s good to know the lineage is continuing in the form of Green Table takeaway meals even during this time of lockdown when we are unable to cook for our students and all learning has to happen at a distance via zoom.    

Head of Food at Schumacher College Julia Ponsonby is the author of several cookery books including Gaia's Feasts, Gaia's Kitchen and Mindful Thoughts for Cooks.  She will be running a weekend workshop Gaia's Kitchen 2021 later this year, sharing some of her fantasic recipes. 

Schumacher College is developing new undergratuate and postgraduate degrees in Regenerative Food and Farming. Click here to read about the BSc, and here to explore the MSc.