Christine Porter is beyond happy to be living in Wyoming.
She just never planned to be here—in an office, at the University of Wyoming, with a title in front of her name.
“When I started my Ph.D., I thought, ‘I will never be an academic. No way. No how. Never,’” she says with a wide smile across her face.
As Porter begins to explain why she changed her mind, her face hardens, her smile vanishes.
“But, eventually, I decided to become an academic because the wisdom of communities about how to reform food systems and sustainability is well ahead of academia,” Porter says. “We’re blind to it in academia, and we can’t be. We are near peak soil and peak oil, and our food systems depend on both of those things. If we run out of either, we’re going to starve.”
Convinced that universities must take a more active role in the community food movement that’s sweeping the country—Laramie, for example, has added a second farmers’ market this summer—Porter joined the UW Division of Kinesiology and Health as an assistant professor in July 2010.
At UW, Porter leads the largest United States Department of Agriculture grant received in university history—a $5 million, five-year project to research and support community food system action groups in Wyoming, California and New York. She wrote the proposal before moving to Wyoming and submitted it the day before she moved out of her house in New York.
Her Wyoming project partners are Feeding Laramie Valley, a grassroots community effort that fronts the sustainable foods movement in Albany County, and Blue Mountain Associates, a private non-profit group that works on the Wind River Indian Reservation.
The food dignity project also has spurred a new UW minor in sustainability, with a food systems track, that is awaiting university approval.
“The problem is not about individual behavior change, it’s about changing our food system,” says Porter, whose educational résumé includes degrees from the University of Maryland (B.S., 1993), the University of London Institute of Education in England (M.S., 2002) and Cornell University (Ph.D., 2010). “People did not get lazy and lose their discipline in the last 30 years and become obese. That is not why two-thirds of the United States is overweight.
“Our food system and our food environment have changed,” she says. “We have to take the steps to rebuild viable, ethical, practical, sustainable, equitable alternatives to feed our communities. Our grandchildren are in trouble with the status quo. There is an urgency to learn how to build these alternatives.”
Never did Porter expect to help lead such an effort from behind a desk on a college campus.
But once she had talked herself into working in academia, where funding is more accessible and knowledge can be more easily co-generated and disseminated, Porter developed a vision for an ideal position: at a land-grant university in a small city where she could ski and mountain bike.
“That was Laramie,” Porter says as a smile returns to her face. “We had vacationed in Wyoming while we were living in England, and now I get to enjoy this state every day. I love living here. I just love it here.”