Environmental consciousness

Crunchy, like granola.

It is the Williams College way of referring to people that the majority perceives as idealistic hippies and “tree-huggers” with their heads in the clouds. The granola refers to the stereotype of backpackers who carry granola to snack on during their long treks. The phrase, however, has come to have a wider meaning – it now even applies to efforts to make the school more ecologically friendly, such as the Eco-Cafe in Schow.

The mindset to label these movements as “the other” – to cast away the idea of organic foods and fair trade products – comes from a number of sources. First, people have been pushed to equate vegetarian and organic food with steamed brussel sprouts placed lightly over a bed of barely cooked brown rice. We have had the notion that this food is not only tasteless, but that it is also not filling, banged over our head by companies screaming out, “Got milk?” or “Beef. It’s what’s for dinner.”

Yet it appears that these assessments are being made more quickly than is appropriate. Greensense, the environmental activism group on campus, is taking steps to alter people’s views of organic and vegetarian food with a special dinner in all of the campus dining halls on Earth Day, April 22, consisting of many organic items and locally-grown foods. The menu will include a chicken and pasta dish made with organic, free range chicken, beans, organic brown rice, fruit pies made with organic produce, and locally-made cheeses and ice creams.

“Many students in the organization think that it is important to convey the concept of organic and locally-grown food,” says Sarah Klionsky ’03, who has been in charge of this year’s “organic/local dinner” with the support of school nutritionist Virginia Skorupski.

Klionsky points out that “11 of the 25 most heavily used pesticides in conventional agriculture have been classified as carcinogenic, 17 cause genetic damage, and ten cause reproductive problems.” These pesticides are not used in organic farming – indeed, according to Klionsky, “organic farming does not use synthetic chemicals such as nitrogen fertilizers, petroleum-based pesticides, growth hormones, or antibiotics.” On top of it all, “organic produce is estimated to have 50 percent more vitamins, minerals, enzymes, and micronutrients” than its conventional counterpart.

Greensense, however, is also pointing to other food issues on campus. Research that Greensense has amassed says that “the world’s cattle alone – not to mention pigs and chickens – consume a quantity of food equal to the caloric needs of 8.7 billion people.” Meanwhile, 20 million people die every year from starvation. Greensense also reminds us that it takes 39 times as much fossil fuel to make a calorie of protein from beef as it does to make a calorie of protein from soybeans. In both cases, the protein is a complete protein, containing large quantities of all of the enzymes necessary for human health.

To emphasize this point, Greensense has created the Hunger Banquet, which will be held Thursday, April 18, at 5:30 pm in the Baxter North Dining Hall. At the Banquet, 15 percent of those attending will receive a three-course meal, 30 percent will receive rice and tomatoes, and the remainder will eat just rice, in order to accurately portray current world nutrition standards. The information sheet that Greensense plans to pass out at the Banquet points out that the wealthiest 15 percent of the global population consumes 70 percent of the world’s grain production, primarily through the consumption of meat. On top of it all, Greensense contends that one half of America’s water usage is aimed at feeding its livestock. Indeed, agricultural pollutants, like manure, pesticides, and run-off have contaminated half of the wells and surface streams in the United States.

So, what can we do? What can 2,000 college students in the northwestern corner of Massachusetts really do to make a difference?

Greensense has some ideas. Call for a Campus Environmental Policy Statement that clearly lays out the school’s environmental goals. Write Dining Services and ask that it carry more organic and locally grown foods. Only take as much food as you will eat in the dining halls. Or even just choose a couple days a week to eat a meatless meal.

Crunchy? Perhaps. But they certainly have some ideas worth chewing on.