Investing in food

The article entitled “Students opt for fewer meals in dining halls” in the Oct. 6 issue of the Record cited the various motivations for students who have reduced their meal plans – from avoiding lines and stress, to saving money, to cooking food that fits their lifestyles and dietary needs. There is, however, another large motivation behind these meal plan changes that needs to be addressed. A glance at the other front page stories and photos of that issue provides clues to this motivating force. The issue highlighted the successful Gastronomica symposium, the Williams Sustainable Growers (WSG) table at the “Taste of Place” farmers’ market, the planting of the new presidential garden and an editorial about dining hall changes to better serve students and preserve meal-time culture. All of these events have stemmed from and promoted the growing student culture of seeking healthy, sustainably raised food on campus – a student demand that Dining Services and the institutional administration should support more intentionally and completely than they are right now.

The percentage of students committed to sustainable food efforts is rapidly increasing on campus, as evidenced by the 376 members of the WSG listserv (almost 20 percent of the student body) who want to involve themselves in learning about their food by growing it. The College prides itself on working with and responding to student concerns and should do so by promoting local and organic food through responsible purchasing decisions, as well as increased academic options in food studies. Curricular offerings about food are becoming more common but are still very limited, even though addressing food issues will be integral to solving critical problems of the 21st century. Still, one of the best ways for students to learn about food sustainability is through experience and by actually eating food grown with ecologically sound methods in their community. If we combined the institutional purchasing power with new educational programming we could help ensure that Williams students graduate as food-conscious leaders who appreciate farmers as well as the health, economic and social benefits of eating organic and/or local food.

Many obstacles exist to facilitating sustainable food purchasing. Potentially increased cost is necessarily crucial to all discussions of dining hall changes. However, if Dining Services was able to purchase more sustainable, local food, some of the individuals on lower meal plans might be more tempted to increase to 10 or 21 meals in order to support this type of purchasing and to enjoy the food. Advocacy organizations often urge shoppers to vote with their pocketbooks, yet there is only so much individual decisions can control. Meanwhile institutional decisions can make huge strides in fighting against our current industrial agriculture system. Preparing and processing farm fresh raw ingredients necessitates new skills and more time, but the end product will probably have greater value to the cook, the student who eats it and to the farmer who produced the ingredients. Sheer quantity can also present challenges: Seeing how many rows of spinach at Peace Valley went to one Driscoll dinner highlights how scale is an issue when sourcing from smaller, ecological farms. The challenge, then, is not to ignore quality but rather use the ingenuity of the farmers, the Dining Services staff and other experts on campus to develop creative solutions.

The presidential induction meal was the best meal I’ve ever eaten at Williams. This was not only because I had helped grow the tomatoes, potatoes and peppers from Peace Valley Farm, but also because everyone I talked to that night was so impressed and appreciative of the work that Dining Services had put into the dinner, of the quality of the meal and the variety of produce, meat and dairy products that are all available from this area. I kept hearing people say they would wait in long lines, no problem, if we got to eat like this every day! Of course, I am not advocating tablecloths and fancy silver on a regular basis, but there are many small but significant steps that can be taken. First and foremost, we can make local, sustainable and organic produce a priority everyday, not just for special events. Dining Services has made progress towards these changes despite budget cuts and countless other challenges. As the meal plan changes are addressed, the WSG and Thursday Night Grassroots want to restate to Dining Services and the administration the vital importance of investing in the local food economy for the health of the planet, the students, the local producers and our institutional future.