The taste of power

We came to the College to develop the power to achieve our goals. Yet the power that we already have to influence society is often invisible to us or seems so small as to appear to be insignificant. Consider this: Three times a day, you take the economic and environmental sustainability of our society into your own hands when you decide what to eat. You consume the capital and labor of hundreds of people, and your choices support the continued investment of capital and labor into the supply chain that produced your food.

The complexity of modern supply chains can obscure the human reality of agriculture. In her address last year, Angela Davis referred to the food system as a mechanism of repression and a significant contributor to modern environmental problems. We can own our power to change this system by choosing sustainably produced food when we have the opportunity to do so. But we will have failed to achieve the goal of a liberal arts education if we cannot frame our daily actions in the context of their wider consequences. The 150-mile meals that will be showcased during Earth Week are both the result of the power of student demand and an opportunity to exercise that power.

Farming is a notoriously difficult way to earn a living, and growing corporate control of agriculture has obliterated traditional ways of life worldwide. You need look no further than the Berkshires to see evidence of this phenomenon. Small-scale, independent farmers are hard-pressed to compete with large-scale, corporate agriculture. Globalization has increased market competition; 4.1 billion pounds of America’s food came from China last year. It offends me that my fruit is often better traveled than I am. 

So what? Aren’t those just symptoms of economic progress? Doesn’t it all taste the same?   

The handful of corporations that dominate the food system today lack economic and moral incentives to protect their communities, consumers and land. Industrial agricultural practices pollute water, air and soil, such that the U.S. government spends millions of tax dollars each year vainly trying to protect our future health and productivity. By contrast, small-scale local producers often internalize these incentives as part of their personal identities. Their clients are their friends and neighbors, and furthermore, they cannot afford to lose their business by providing a low-quality product. Small farmers are more careful in their application of petroleum-based fertilizers than large farms. Large farms can afford to use these fertilizers, because they benefit more from current agricultural policies than small farmers; we can therefore reduce our dependence on fossil fuels by supporting small farmers. Small-scale farmers also have more flexibility to choose methods of cultivation that require fewer pollutants and don’t degrade the soil.

The sweeping changes desperately needed in our food system are within our power as students to make. Colleges and universities account for $5 billion in food sales annually, a significant portion of total food sales in the United States. An alumnus of the College, Anim Steel ’94, created the Real Food Challenge to prove that when students demand food that is produced under humanitarian conditions, for fair wages and using fewer fossil fuels, our voices reverberate throughout the entire food system. The College administration has declined to join our friends in the NESCAC and the Ivy League schools in the Challenge, on grounds that it wishes to maintain the independence of our institution. Fine. We don’t need a signature to make the College a leader of social change.

In response to increasing student demand, Bob Volpi, director of Dining Services, has personally committed to purchasing 20 percent of the College’s food according to Real Food guidelines. But the necessary increases in dining service’s budget must be approved by the College’s Vice President for Campus Life Stephen Klass and the Board of Trustees. They are much more likely to approve increased purchases of local food if students show their widespread support. Higher-than-average attendance at each dining hall during the 150-mile meals translates directly into a higher demand for sustainable, just and local food.

The collaborative efforts of Volpi, Brent Wasser, sustainable food and agriculture program manager of the Zilkha Center, and Mark Thompson, executive chef of Dining Services, are bringing to campus a delectable array of local fare in celebration of Earth Week. Dig in, and relish the taste of your individual power.

Mary Ignatiadis ’16 is a geosciences major from Huntsville, Ala. She lives in Mark Hopkins.