COCC teacher brings local farms into class

Course looks at where food comes from

By Tyler Leeds / The Bulletin

A Central Oregon Community College professor has begun coordinating a volunteer program for local organic farms, an undertaking that reflects a change in the professor’s understanding of wellness.

Owen Murphy, assistant professor of health and human performances, coordinates Bend’s Willing Workers on Local Farms program. Murphy, 39, was recruited earlier this year after bringing his students to Central Oregon Locavore for a chance to see how a food nonprofit is run.

Now students in his Sustainable Food and Nutrition course have the option to spend a day working on a local farm as part of the course. This curriculum, with its emphasis on the practical implications of food production, as well as the limitations, represents an evolution in Murphy’s approach to teaching health to his students.

“I grew up loving endurance sports — things like cycling, triathlon and distance running,” Murphy said. “Ultimately, I wanted to work with athletes competing at such a high level. And so over time, I competed and coached, but it was a myopic view of health.”

Murphy said he’s not sure whether there was “a specific day or event that changed things,” but over time, he “got less and less joy” out of his focus on performance.

“It doesn’t do anyone a whole lot of good to improve your 4K time by 2 percent, when social issues of health matter so much more,” Murphy said. “What happened was, I stopped teaching students to count calories in and calories out, and began to focus on healthy food and mindset, as well as the social causes and consequences of food production.”

As part of a more holistic approach to health, Murphy began incorporating lessons on industrial and organic food production systems. To get his class started, he asks students whether they know where their food comes from to spark conversations about the movement of food across the planet and the different conditions in which it is produced.

“There’s nothing more personal than putting food in your mouth,” Murphy said. “But students are not always aware of how something got to the grocery, wrapped in plastic. It’s also easy to only see one price, the one you pay at the cash register. But there are other prices to food — environmental prices and social costs, especially if there are underpaid workers involved.”

Because of this focus, Murphy jumped on the chance to help out with WWOLF, which allows his students to observe one facet of the modern food system. During a trip the first weekend of March, 10 of Murphy’s students and 20 other volunteers made it out to Rainshadow Organics in Terrebonne, where they tore down and cleaned up a hoop house that collapsed under the weight of snowfall. The group also helped construct a mushroom-growing facility and spread compost.

“Going out and getting to talk to the people who grow local around us was my favorite part,” said Justin Warren, 19, a COCC student planning to transfer to Oregon State University-Cascades. “I didn’t realize the depths with which it takes to have a farm and grow food for a town. They don’t even have that many people, so what would they do without some help?”

Murphy said the trips aren’t important only for illustrating the way local food production works, but also are a means to drive home that his lessons aren’t merely academic.

“You really need to make something personal if you want it to be relevant to students,” Murphy said. “In order to motivate change in a society, you need to motivate it in individuals. Students have enough people telling them what’s right or wrong; I hope this shows them what’s out there, so they can think about their food more and decide what’s right for them.”

The next WWOLF trip will be April 12 to Juniper Jungle Farm in Bend.

— Reporter: 541-633-2160,