The problems facing our generation are numerous, and as today’s students move into the world it will fall on us to take up issues of poverty, disease, war and the plethora of injustices and inequalities that blanket the globe. Among the most pressing of these are issues relating to food. How will we feed a world that will be the home to eight billion people in 2030 and nine billion people in 2050? How can we feed people now without exhausting all our resources and our ability to feed people in the future? How can we improve our food systems, the ways that we grow, distribute, package, process, buy and eat food, so that those systems adequately address not only our nutritional needs, but also our environmental concerns, fair labor issues, socioeconomic inequalities, educational and cultural needs, political problems and an entire range of issues that are inextricably tied to food?
The College’s mission statement articulates that we need to encourage “direct engagement with human needs, nearby and far away,” that we need to “serve well our students and the world” and that we need to ensure “that College operations are environmentally sustainable.” Our college does not exist in isolation, and the decisions we make here at the College are tied to a much larger global-industrial food system that impacts not only farmers in Berkshire County and our “local” community, but farmers in Mexico and Israel, chicken farmers in the Midwest and an entire network of food policies that can be traced back to forces in Washington that passed a $300 billion farm bill in 2008 (a farm bill that, among other things, subsidized commodity crops such as corn and soy with $4.9 billion).
Williams College’s $3 million/year food budget is part of the $5 billion/year spent by colleges and universities nationwide and is very much at the mercy of a food system that heavily subsidizes industrially produced meat and produce with disastrous health, socioeconomic and environmental consequences. This is to say that our food purchasing does not exist in isolation; price points, contracts, negotiations, cultural and social norms and an entire network of political and economic forces dictate how we eat at the College.
As this country’s history of the last 50 years shows, students are an incredibly powerful force for positive change, from civil rights to apartheid and now a host of environmental and food issues that students in this country and around the world are actively engaged in. Unfortunately, it now falls to us to undo the sins of previous generations and come up with solutions to problems – solutions upon which the fate of the world hangs.
The Real Food Challenge was founded by Anim Steel ’94 to be an instrument of such change through the Real Food Commitment. The Commitment, to be signed by college administrators, commits to shifting 20 percent of food purchasing to “real” food – food that is local or community-based, ecologically sound, fair or humane – by 2020. Currently, 13.1 percent of the College’s food qualifies as real food under standardized guidelines that have been developed by students and applied to colleges as far afield as the University of California at Santa Cruz, Carleton, Williams and the University of Vermont.
The Commitment would not dictate what policy should be going forward at Williams, nor does it advocate throwing money at the issue, which is not a sustainable solution. The Commitment is instrumental in forming a campus working group to think about food issues and how Williams relates to the food system through its purchasing, and it is also a symbolic statement that we stand with other colleges and universities across the country. If we, as students, succeed in shifting 20 percent of purchasing toward real food by 2020, we will have moved $1 billion, and that is a real and measurable step toward saving our planet.
As of now, the College is reluctant to sign such a commitment, as the administration feels that we are already doing enough regarding these issues as an institution and that we do not need to be a part of such an initiative. However, not only can we always do better, as students it is our job to be constantly perfecting and improving the College if we truly love it. This commitment would not only be a symbol of our continuing commitment to these values, but a commitment to begin wider discussions about how we as a college might realize the broader values that are shared among students, administrators, dining services and our vibrant community. Whether we like it or not, and as good as our food is in comparison to many colleges, we are inextricably linked to an entire global community of eaters, and we ought to think more critically about how the College connects to the world through food. Signing the Real Food Commitment would be a good place to start.
Jacob Addelson ’14 is a history and classics double major from Maynard, Mass. He lives in Sage.