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Food, Farms, and Finding Your Path at Duke

human interest




Food, Farms, and Finding Your Path at Duke

A Conversation with Sara Snyder

Reed McLaurin


“What should I get at WU?” For most Duke students, this is as much we think about food in the endless rush between classes, meetings, and Perkins. Our lives feel so far removed from agriculture, the environment, and the impact of our consumptive choices that we almost forget how complicated feeding this university—and this planet—really is. But senior Sara Snyder isn’t like most of us. Freethinking and intensely reflective, she has devoted her Duke career to understanding the food systems we take for granted.

Food production was integral to Sara’s childhood in New Bern, a hog farming community in eastern North Carolina. In high school, one of her environmental science classes villainized such farms, saying they caused pollution and eutrophication that was destroying the environment. Unsettled by a perspective that seemed to ignore the constraints of the farmers in her community, Sara became interested in understanding the complexities of food systems rather than blaming the farmers, like her father, operating within them.

At Duke, Sara has developed further as a critical thinker. Intellectually curious, each semester she has intentionally taken a class outside of her Environmental Science and Policy major to learn about issues she “has never had a space to explore.” This fall, that’s a class on race and Durham. Another semester, it was Middle Eastern Film. Where once she favored “cut and dry” subjects like math and science, these electives have made her increasingly interested in social issues. When analyzing any situation, she now finds herself asking questions like: “What systems of oppression are working?” and “Who has power?”

But none of these explorative classes has had a more lasting impact than her first, World Food Systems. Beyond giving her a means to analyze food systems with a nuance her high school course lacked, an in-class talk by Duke Campus Farm manager Saskia Cornes exposed her to a lesser-known corner of Duke that turned these interests into action. The following semester, she participated in the Campus Farm’s alternative spring break program, and she hasn’t looked back since.

After working part time on the farm in the summer after her first year, Sara decided to join Campus Farm student leadership and became a Crew Member. Her love for the farm and desire to make it a “welcoming and open space for dialogue” is palpable in her description of its programming.

Twice a week, from 3-5, volunteers make the 15-minute drive from campus to work side-by-side with Crew Members and Campus Farm Staff. It’s the conversations that occur between these groups, just as much as the manual labor they participate in, that drives Sara’s passion. After finishing their work, Crew Members give volunteers a tour of the farm to “provide a larger context for why those tasks are important.”

If you don’t want to get your hands dirty, you can still come out to each semester’s Contra Dance, a square dance lead by a caller and live band. Between the cider, snacks, and lit pathways, it’s “a night where people can come out to the farm in a less formal space.”

In the summer and fall, Duke Campus Farm runs a CSA, or community supported agriculture system, in which people pay for a weekly box of mixed produce. But throughout the year, the farm also sells single crops, grown in bulk, to Duke Dining. Last year they grew 1.3 tons of watermelon for the first-year picnic. The greens in Marketplace and Farmstead—thank the Campus Farm.

When she’s not on the farm, Sara keeps herself busy. As the co-president of Food for Thought, she helps other Duke students “plug into food initiatives on campus.” She also strives to improve the environmental impact of Duke’s food system as a member of Sustainable Duke’s Dining Team. Understated but energetic, Sara doesn’t see these obligations as work because “they’re too exciting.” Moreover, she wants to use her influence as a senior to push these environmental initiatives to find intersections with social justice work.

Sara hasn’t had a ‘traditional’ Duke experience, and she doesn’t want a ‘traditional’ Duke career. Conforming to other people’s standards has never interested her. Rather, she listens to herself and is ready to take advantage of opportunities as they appear. For now, she’s thinking about doing local government or non-profit work somewhere in the South. “Why limit yourself geographically?” I ask. Always thinking of others before herself, she responds: “With community-based work, the best work is done by people from the community.”