A panel discussion yesterday afternoon on the future of sustainable food drew a sizable audience to Bond Hall. The three panelists– Hansjakob Werlen, German Professor and Slow Food USA Convium leader, Elizabeth E. Andersen, the owner of a Chester County sustainable farm, and her daughter, Princeton student and food activist, Katy Anderson– spoke about their ideas and visions regarding the possibility of increasing the amount of food that is produced in an environmentally conscious way. The event was sponsored by the Good Food group, the group behind Tuesday night’s Sharples takeover.
Sustainable food is produce, meat, and grain that is grown in a way that can be supported long term, both financially and environmentally. According to Werlen, the current industrialized food production system is not sustainable, because it relies on destructive fertilizers and pesticides, genetically-modified plant varieties, the use of fossil fuels to ship goods cross-country, and is ultimately bad for human health. Sustainable food is locally grown, does not use harmful chemicals, is grown using traditional methods (often on small farms) and in a way that does not affect the environment. Advocates of sustainable food say that not only is it healthier and more environmentally sound, it even tastes better – because it is real food, and not just food-like (Wonderbread is food-like).
The talk focused on three main issues: why people are becoming interested in sustainable food, what systems currently exist to supply sustainable food, and how college students like ourselves can contribute to this movement.
The growing interest in sustainable food comes largely from acknowledgment of the drawbacks of what is often referred to as “agribusiness”– large-scale industrialized food production. There are many reasons to dislike the current system: it is cruel to animals, it uses unhealthy chemicals, it grows GMOs rather than natural plant species, it removes the connection between people and the food that they eat.
Organic goods are marketed as an improvement on the food produced by the industrial system, but Elizabeth Andersen explained why she was mistrustful of the organic label that we see on fruits and vegetables in stores. That label “can mean something different than what we think it does,” she said, because while “organic” producers are required to recycle, allow their animals to graze, and to abstain from use of synthetic pesticides, they may circumvent these requirements by shipping their recycling offsite like any other business, giving their livestock only a small patch of ground to wander in, and use pesticides that are natural but just as harsh as some chemicals. In other words, “organic” does not always mean “good for you”, nor “good for the earth”.
Sustainable farms, such as the one that Andersen owns, hold themselves to the high standard of producing truly organic food. Her Chester County CSA – community supported agriculture – is a small farm that provides fresh vegetables to its members on a weekly basis. The farm is not a certified organic producer, because members are easily able to come to the farm and see for themselves what is going into their food: no harsh pesticides or fertilizers, traditional planting and harvesting techniques, and lots of hard work by real people.
There is also a public health angle to sustainable food. Because real, healthy food is not a part of everyday life in our culture as it once was, it can be difficult for those who live in poor neighborhoods to have access to it; bringing fresh produce back into everyone’s life is another goal of the sustainable food movement.
Currently, there are two main ways to get sustainable food such as is produced at farms like Andersen’s CSA. One is to become a member of a CSA: for several hundred dollars you purchase a share of the farm’s crop, and receive a weekly supply of a variety of vegetables and fruits. Another is to shop at a farmer’s market where small farmers sell their produce directly. So far, grocery stores have been reluctant to buy from small-scale producers, so it can be hard to find sustainable food there.
However, the fact that Walmart and McDonalds have both recently indicated their intention to buy more organically-sourced foods indicates a strong awareness of these issues, and leads to a hope that their decision will influence other businesses to devote attention and resources to organic and, eventually, sustainable foods. Although sustainable food may take longer to produce and cost more, the interest of large businesses shows that there is definitely public interest in increasing the health value of the food we eat.
Which, of course, brought the discussion to the Good Food group and their work at Swarthmore, and a discussion of what can be done at colleges in order to create a wider awareness of and market for sustainable food. Katy Andersen spoke from her experience as a food activist at Princeton, and said that two key elements to creating change are awareness, and making concrete decisions that lead to small changes. When working with their dining hall, for example, her group asked that preference be given to buying food that was local, organic, or sustainable. Having a set of criteria, said Andersen, made it easier for the dining hall staff to work with them and provide healthier food.
She also gave examples of ways that various colleges had increased the visibility of the various kinds of food that were available to students. The most effective approach, according to Andersen, was to create a clear distinction between sustainable and non-sustainable options: having all sustainable food one night a week, or a whole dining hall devoted to sustainable food. That gave students a chance to decide that fresh, local foods were actually better than the alternative.
Colleges also have to decide what changes to prioritize. Is it more important, for example, to buy only cruelty-free meat, or to use the same resources to commit to all-local food? Marshall Morales ’08, one of the Good Food organizers, talked about how Good Food was working together with ARC and the Wellness Committee on making choices that would appeal to the entire student body.
Also, as college students, we are forced to make a choice between deciding how to eat based on choice, or by necessity: do we have time to go to the Co-op for fruits and veggies, or should we just get a burger and fries at Sharples because it’s easier? One of the main outcomes of the discussion was that, as with most other things, a little bit of initiative goes a long way. The new organic garden that will be planted across the street from Mary Lyon will primarily supply produce to a co-op in Chester, but will also bring food production directly to Swatties’ attention: the future of food is attainable.
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