Zilkha program brings new ideas to the table

We all eat every day, and more often than not at the dining halls. Perhaps because it is often seen as such a mundane task – many students rushing through meals to run to the next class or activity – we do not always think of it as something, well, to think about.
Katharine Millonzi, manager of the Sustainable Food and Agriculture Program (SFAP), is seeking to change that attitude. The SFAP, initiated about a year ago, is a recent addition to the Zilkha Center for Environmental Initiatives. Tucked away in a quiet corner of Hopkins Hall, the Zilkha Center is humming with energy for new ways to improve campus sustainability, the SFAP one essential element of a comprehensive program.
Increasingly, the production, distribution and consumption of food is being recognized as an important issue, not only for the environment but also for public health and rural communities. According to its mission statement, the SFAP “aims to foster in future generations a passion for responsible environmental stewardship and the rediscovery of vital food.” Millonzi tries to bring this principle into practice through two broad areas: educational initiatives and operational improvements.
With education, Millonzi wants to highlight the importance of thinking about food for all members of the College’s community. “I try to have food included in the conversation,” she said. “I work with students as the official staff advisor for the student garden, hold taste education workshops, bring in guest lecturers and do collaborations with other departments.” She has also been trying to bring food into the academic realm, having taught a Winter Study course on sustainable food systems, among other things.
On the operational side, Millonzi has been working closely with Dining Services to reevaluate and re-envision the College’s food purchasing practices to bring them closer in line with the SFAP’s principles, the first project being to choose criteria for sustainable food, guided by a goal of achieving environmental, economic and social sustainability. Currently, nearly a 10th of the annual budget is spent on food meeting at least one of the criteria.
Skeptics may imagine that the College must pay a premium for this kind of food, but Millonzi explained otherwise. “It doesn’t have to be [more expensive] if you restructure systems on a bigger scale,” she said. “It costs more if you have a product-to-product replacement system,” such as buying grass-fed beef through the same supplier from which you previously bought regular beef, Millonzi said. What she imagines achieving through the SFAP and, ideally, partnerships with other colleges, is to change the supply-chain structure through direct engagement with local farmers.
“We have an opportunity to take our food budget and really wield it towards good,” she said. “People say things like, if overnight we were to buy all local, there wouldn’t be enough – and that’s correct, because we use such a high volume of food. However, that’s not really the point. The point is that that we can set up our systems to create jobs, to support new farmers, to contract with them.”
Contracting with local farmers could actually allow savings over traditional purchasing, while simultaneously investing in the local community, preserving food security in the region and committing to sustainable practices.
Such structural changes are not going to happen immediately. Meanwhile, the SFAP is also trying to improve accountability with current food purchasing. Dining Services primarily purchases food from two suppliers based in the Northeast, but the suppliers’ supply comes from all over the country. Millonzi is working on a new computer program that would allow Dining Services to track the sources of their food.
In a more fundamental sense, however, Millonzi wants, through the SFAP, to transcend our current means of thinking about our economy of food. “We can get down to cost analysis, and that’s what we are doing, but we also have to talk about value,” she said. “What we have to look at as an institution is whether this is going to be a priority.” She referenced the huge impact that food production has on the environment with regards to climate change, topsoil erosion and soil fertility, among many other things.
Beyond bringing attention to all the “issues” that food raises, Millonzi wants to improve the experience of food at the College. “The enjoyment and pleasure of food, in my mind, is a component of health, too,” she said. “No one wants to come and hear a lecture about the impending environmental apocalypse. But people will come to a chocolate tasting, where they can revitalize their taste buds and at the same time weave into that conversation lots of sustainability issues, international and national.”
With degrees in both gastronomy and anthropology, Millonzi appreciates the potential of good food, pure and simple. “If we grow an appreciation of quality,” she said, “then the natural following is that people want to learn how that quality is produced, and if it is being preserved and protected.”