Choosing sustainable food

In Jan. 2007, Williams committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and to adopting the principles of sustainability. Since that time, we have significantly reduced our energy demands and greenhouse gas emissions associated with direct consumption of energy on campus. We are currently striving to evaluate and reduce the environmental impacts associated with the production, distribution, processing and ultimate disposal of resources used in our day-to-day lives. Each day our understanding of the implications of campus decisions, resource consumption, the complexity of supply chains and our living habits and practices deepens.

We recognize that developing a sustainable campus will involve the active engagement, curiosity and efforts of all of our community; as expressed in the College’s environmental principles:

“Williams is committed to protecting and enhancing the natural and built environment in which we learn, work and live, and to supporting the global effort to advance environmental sustainability. These efforts rely on the involvement of all members of the campus community. To succeed, initiatives must be not only environmentally responsible but also socially fair and economically sound. The College’s greatest contribution is through educating our students, who will go on to become environmental stewards through their many roles as scientists, lawyers, investors, politicians, manufacturers, writers, advocates, artists, teachers, parents, consumers and citizens. We do this through our teaching, research and co-curricular offerings, and by demonstrating and embracing sustainable practices in the development and operations of our campus.”

Many of us have individually committed to reducing our environmental footprint as we come to terms with the potentially devastating impact of our personal habits on our Earth’s system. We are cutting back energy consumption in our homes. We are making personal commitments to change the way we feed our ourselves and our families. We are joining farm cooperatives, starting gardens, shopping at organic food markets, preparing more meals at home, buying grass-fed, humanely-raised animal products, eating less meat and opting to eat seasonally. At home, our food production, purchasing, preparation and menu planning has evolved to more closely align with our own environmental principles.

As an institution, it is not so easy to redefine how we collectively feed ourselves. We enter the College with a certain set of assumptions of what it means to be member of this community and what services we can expect the College to offer us. Williams encourages celebrating diversity, critical thinking, personal choice and academic discourse. We learn from our fellow students which professors are considered the friendliest and offer the easiest courses, how we get rid of our trash in our dorm rooms and what sorts of meals to expect in the dining halls. We view food choices as personal decisions. And while we may be somewhat willing to accept some institutionally enforced principles – think of the neighborhood housing system, on-campus living or the first-year car policy – we are not so inclined to accept what are perceived as enforced food choices.

On April 18, one of our assumptions was challenged. Meat was removed from the menu at Driscoll dining hall for one evening meal while all of the other dining halls offered their usual menu. While some students embraced the vegetarian meal for many reasons, other students were less than happy: “I pay for meals – I want what I want. Why should the choices of others dictate what I eat?”

Eating meals in a college dining hall isn’t the same as eating in a restaurant or even eating at home. You can choose to frequent the restaurant that offers the foods you like. At home, depending upon your family’s approach, you eat what your parents give you, or negotiate, or make your own meals. A college dining service has a captured clientele. You have to eat there – they have to feed you. It is logistically impossible to negotiate with every student or prepare individual meals, so we try to strike a balance by offering a variety of foods that are reasonably priced. And we need to strike a balance between individual likes and desires and larger civic and environmental responsibilities.

When you join a community, you inevitably give up some personal choice. On the other hand, when we want to make “improvements” to the community’s operation, we need the community to engage in that process. Meatless Monday was a way for us to say, “Let’s think about food. Let’s think about where it comes from and the implications of our choices beyond ourselves.”

Currently, the College annually spends just under $3 million on food, much of it supporting an industrial food system. Only 10 percent is used to purchase foods that can loosely be defined as sustainable – either grown locally, certified organic or humane or meeting fair trade standards. Our industrial food system is systematically reducing the diversity of plant species, contributing to ground water contamination and topsoil loss, supporting inhumane and unhealthy treatment of animals, resulting in the loss of family farms, overusing pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers, producing significant amounts of greenhouse gas emissions and is therefore environmentally, economically and socially unsustainable. In many ways, our food purchasing practices directly contradict our commitment to protect and enhance our natural environment.

Let’s talk.

Stephanie Boyd is the director of the Zilkha Center for Environmental Initiatives.