The teaching of traditional dietary principles was very important to Weston A. Price as reflected in his final words, “You teach, you teach, you teach.” And so it is appropriate that his classic work, Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, should serve as the main text for teaching an introductory college course.
As a professor of soil science, it is my privilege and pleasure to share with students my curiosity, passion and research interests relating to traditional organic food and farming systems in my seminar of the same name. The actual course description can be viewed at this link: byrne.rutgers.edu/seminars/courses/traditional-organic-food-and-farming-systems.
This course is a compilation of what I have learned from reading Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, my research into organic farming systems and my extension programs on soil fertility in support of plant, animal and human health.
I have been teaching this special ten-week course to first-year students at Rutgers University every fall semester since 2012. At Rutgers-New Brunswick these courses are known as Byrne Seminars. The hundred or so various Byrne Seminar offerings are each designed to provide students with a chance to explore subject areas that interest them. As new students they are typically in the process of deciding major study areas and career paths. Having the words “organic food” in the course title seems to attract many students thinking of majoring in nutrition.
Course learning objectives include an introduction to the ecological basis for organic farming and food systems; an awareness of differences between traditional organic foods, modern USDA certified organic and commercial foods; an appreciation for why people choose to eat traditional foods; becoming familiar with resources for finding, producing or preparing traditional foods; and developing critical thinking skills for analysis of scientific controversies relating to making personal food choices.
Another course I teach at Rutgers is principles of organic crop production, which, as the title indicates, is focused on teaching students the methods of organic food production using standards as defined by the USDA National Organic Program (USDA-NOP). In contrast, my seminar on traditional organic food and farming systems as a seminar is focused on the importance of producing meat, milk and eggs on pasture; animal fats; raw whole foods; properly prepared sprouted grains; fermentation; gathering wild foods, and so on.
The differences between organic foods as defined by the USDA-NOP and what I refer to as traditional organic foods is best explained by using an example. An excellent illustration of this difference was given by Jerome Rodale in a 1958 article that appeared in Organic Gardening magazine: “It is not organic to produce milk organically, and then to pasteurize it.” Although USDA-NOP prohibits irradiation of foods it authorizes pasteurization. In fact, the vast majority of the USDA-certified organic milk supply is highly processed via ultra-pasteurization and homogenization. On the other hand, traditional organic milk would be whole, fresh and unprocessed except for being refrigerated.
I introduce students to the history of the organic food and farming movement by having them read selected passages from the pioneers of the organics movement, including F.H. King, Sir Albert Howard, Eve Balfour, Walter Northbourne, Jerome Rodale and especially Weston A. Price.
Each student is assigned to read a chapter from Nutrition and Physical Degeneration and later must deliver a short oral presentation on the highlights of Dr. Price’s travels and observations as described in his classic work. Each student presents a different chapter in front of the class. Via these short oral student presentations we are able to cover most of the contents from Dr. Price’s five-hundred-ten-page book. As the semester progresses, I encourage student discussion around commonalities and differences among types of foods from region to region and also about the health consequences as observed by Dr. Price when modern commercial foods displaced traditional diets.
Early in the semester, Judy Mudrak has given guest lectures on the topic of the isolated and modernized Swiss. Judy, a native of Switzerland, a WAPF chapter leader, author of a German-language book on raw milk, and a summer tour guide in the Loetschental Valley, is an especially well-qualified speaker. Dressed in traditional Swiss garb, Judy brings so much valuable content and color to the classroom that the students relax and really enjoy the learning experience. This special lecture helps students imagine walking in the footsteps of Dr. Price.
In the classroom, I deliver a detailed lecture on the history of the raw milk movement in the United States beginning with the story of Henry Coit, MD, and his founding of the Medical Milk Commission for the purpose of producing clean, safe certified milk for the feeding of infants and children. The huge controversy surrounding raw milk for human consumption is described in its historical, legal, political and scientific context. This fascinating course topic has great educational value. It exposes students to what is actually in the scientific record and draws out contrasts and questions about official pronouncements from government agencies.
An extensive collection of historical, legal, political and scientific literature concerning raw milk is housed at Rutgers New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station. I began collecting and organizing a digital archive of this raw milk literature in 2007 in response to an upwelling of controversy when I began hosting seminars on the subject by such qualified individuals as Mark McAfee, Gary Cox, Mark Gebhart, Don Schaffner, David Gumpert and Ted Beals. All of this valuable information is made available via electronic file sharing with students. This enables them easy access to a wealth of information such that they can freely check and verify anything concerning discussion of raw milk within the classroom.
In addition to my lecture material on raw milk and organic food and farming history, we have time for viewing selected DVDs in the classroom. For example, screening of the “Farmaggedon” documentary is a real eye-opener for students regarding recent events in the food rights movement. This film helps to stimulate student interest and classroom discussion.
Every class period I bring into the classroom samples of traditional foods for the students to taste. These foods have included Celtic sea salt; organic raw kombucha; organic apples; local paw paw fruit; local black walnuts; fermented cod liver oil; organic popcorn made with organic coconut oil; organic butter; and organic raw milk cheese. For the class period when I bring in the Celtic sea salt, I also make Morton salt available. Interestingly, a show of hands after the salt tasting has without exception shown student preference for Celtic sea salt. And for the class period when I bring in butter I also show them conventional butter to compare. This is so they can observe the darker color of the organic pasture-fed brand.
The one food—raw milk—that we talk so much about in the classroom I cannot provide for students to taste. Since raw milk sales are currently not legal in New Jersey, this one forbidden traditional food item seems to generate further curiosity about it. Students are made aware where they can go to find traditional foods with the WAPF Shopping Guide or with the help of the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA).
Among the many valuable lessons for students, I emphasize that the information presented in this seminar is not intended to tell anyone about what they should or should not eat. Rather, the main objective is to become familiar with the scientific, social and philosophical reasons why some people choose to eat traditional foods and why they support traditional organic farming systems. And I remind them that this seminar is about teaching respect and tolerance for other individuals’ dietary choices whether or not you agree with those choices.
Byrne seminars are small, one-credit courses, limited to just twenty students that meet for only ten weeks. On the last day of class some students say that they are sad to see the class end. For these students I suggest that they form a Rutgers student chapter of the Weston A. Price Foundation for which I would be happy to serve as faculty advisor. Or students may decide to enroll in the other courses I teach at Rutgers.
Because the seminars are graded Pass/No Credit, and have no formal exams (but attendance is required) the relaxed atmosphere is conducive to discussion. It has been said that “Many graduating seniors who took a Byrne Seminar in their first year marvel at the difference their Byrne professors made in shaping the career paths they later chose.” Beyond career choice I imagine students leave my classroom with life-changing relationships to food and farming.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Winter 2015