When food journalist and author Michael Pollan wrote “Eating is an ecological act” in the opening pages of his 2006 opus “Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals,” he was playing off agrarian writer Wendall Berry’s famous declaration about eating being an agricultural act.

Drew Dumsch, founder and president and CEO of The Ecology School in Saco asserts that eating is also an educational act.

Since 1998, the Ecology School has been offering short-term (a day, a week, a semester) immersive courses to school children, adults and families designed to help eaters connect the dots between healthy ecological systems in nature and the nutritional (and sustainably sourced) food on their plates.

Dismayed by the reports I’d been reading about how many school kids in Maine are going to be eating their lunches at their socially distanced desks or behind portable plexiglass partitions in the cafeteria, I wanted to tap alternative schools that are already practiced in outdoor learning spaces for insight into how to safely provide students a bit more communion at lunchtime.

Columnist Christine Burns Rudalevige uses a 5-inch bowl as a measure, tracing around it to cut the dough for curried local-vegetable hand pies. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

I met Dumsch at The Ecology School’s new location at Riverbend Farm, a 105-acre parcel of Maine Farmland Trust conservation property bordered on two sides by the snaking Saco River. The place is abuzz with ecologically integrative construction fueled by a recent $14 million capital campaign and guided by The Living Building Challenge certification, a rigorous building performance standard.

The 9,000 square foot dormitories have been constructed using Maine lumber and designed to capture water for a closed loop water system. The landscaping comprises permaculture teaching gardens. The place will be powered solely by 718 solar panels. The acres wrapped inside the river bends already boast very rich soil, but farmer (and former Ecology School instructor) Scott Courcelle has planted myriad cover crops to prep the area for the school’s agroecology production farm that will ultimately feed the students inside the school’s dining hall (the school calls it the dining commons) three times a day when The Ecology School can welcome students to attend in person. Due to the pandemic, Dumsch says his team has been producing easily digestible online content called Nature Nuggets.

Agroecology is an integrated approach to growing, distributing and preparing food. It uses ecological concepts (like soil health) and social principles (like combatting food insecurity) to design and manage food and farming systems. The goal is to advance healthy communities through the interactions among plants, animals, humans and the environment while also ensuring social equity through a sustainable and fair food system.

While the term was new to me, the concept was first formalized as a farming approach in the 1920s, according to United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization. After World War II, it was pushed aside by the Green Revolution in agriculture and until recently further suppressed by the steamroller of industrial agriculture. Some organizations, like the U.N’s Food and Agriculture Organization, have pointed to agroecology as a practice that could help adequately feed the world going forward.

“Teaching agroecology is one way to cultivate systems thinkers,” Dumsch said.

Waldorf students (and siblings) Graeme and Bromwyn Mosley work in the school’s garden. Photo by Winky Lewis for Maine Coast Waldorf School

At the Maine Coast Waldorf School, agroecology has long been a key pedagogical concept taught to its K-12 students. Even in pre-COVID times, the almost 300-strong student body routinely spent a big part of its school day outside in the herb, vegetable, permaculture gardens and natural forests that comprise the school’s campus in Freeport, says development director Lynne Espy. Students partake in the planting, the harvesting, the distribution of their harvest’s yield to the food insecure and the preparation of their own snacks. “Teaching the students about the connections between nature and their food is just as important as anything else the students learn here,” said Espy.

In addition to long-standing outdoor teaching spaces where cut logs are the seats and heritage apple trees and pollinator hotels are the subject matter, the Maine Coast Waldorf School has constructed covered outdoor classrooms – some temporary tarps near the buildings other more permanent wooden pavilions placed on the forests edges – for every grade level. Where the students physically eat their lunch – most often brought from home for the younger eaters or purchased at the on-site café by the high schoolers – is the teacher’s choice, Espy said, based on the agroecological lesson of the day.

CHRISTINE BURNS RUDALEVIGE is a food writer, recipe developer and tester, and cooking teacher in Brunswick, and the author of “Green Plate Special,” a cookbook from Islandport based on these columns. She can be contacted at [email protected]

Rudalevige crimps the hand pies to seal in the filling. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Vegetable Curry Hand Pies
This recipe is adapted from one created by chef Andrew “Bond” Applegate, co-owner with chef Susan Purcell of the catering company Maine Flavor. In addition to providing the food served at the café at Maine Coast Waldorf School in Freeport, the pair use the school’s commercial kitchen as the home base for Maine Flavor.

Makes 12 handpies

FOR THE DOUGH:

3 cups (12.5 ounces) flour

10 tablespoons (5 ounces) butter

3 ounces vegetable shortening

2 teaspoons dried parsley

1 teaspoon ground turmeric

1 teaspoon salt

3 tablespoons ice water

3 tablespoons milk

FOR THE FILLING:

1 tablespoon coconut oil

¼ cup minced yellow onion plus ½ cup diced onion

3 garlic cloves, minced

1 tablespoon minced ginger root

2 cups diced mixed vegetables (bell peppers, carrots, zucchini, summer squash, green beans, peas)

2 teaspoons ground turmeric

1 teaspoon ground cardamom

1 teaspoon ground coriander

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon sugar

1 teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 (13.5-oz.) can coconut milk

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1 egg, beaten with 1 teaspoon warm water

To make the dough, combine flour, butter, shortening, parsley, turmeric and salt in a stand mixer fitted with paddle attachment and mix until the mixture resembles is in crumbs. Combine the ice water and milk and drizzle into the dry mix while the mixer is running on low speed. Mix until a homogeneous dough forms. Let the dough sit at room temperature for 30 minutes before using.

To make the filling, heat the coconut oil, then sauté the minced onion, garlic and ginger in a large skillet over medium heat until fragrant, 3-4 minutes. Add the diced onion and other diced vegetables, spices and sugar and cook for 1 minute. Stir in the coconut milk and simmer until the vegetables are tender and the sauce is thick, about 25 minutes. Cool the mixture completely and stir in the lemon juice before assembling the handpies.

Rudalevige brushes the hand pies with egg wash before baking them. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Roll out the doughto 1/8th-inch thickness. Cut out 12 (5-inch) circles; you can use a bowl as a handy measure. Place about 1/3 cup of the cooled filling into center of each circle. Fold the dough over the filling to form semi-circles. Crimp the edges of each handpie. Brush with the egg wash. Bake for 15 minutes until golden brown. Serve the handpies hot or at room temperature.

Comments are not available on this story.