At the AASHE (Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education) conference last fall (2008), Vandana Shiva spoke to an eager audience that everything eats, no exceptions. The soil eats compost nutrients and manure, the plants eat soil and water, and humans (among other animals) eat those plants. There are, of course, many more actors in the food system beyond this little stream, but what is critical is recognizing our place in this delicate cycle. Our intimacy with the rest of the food ecology necessitates that we be cautious of the decisions we make about what food to eat, grow, cook, and support.
Caring for chard at the university green house (photo courtesy Sally Hertz)
At Truman State University in Kirksville, Missouri, we are fortunate to be living in an agricultural area; we have a large farm with two small greenhouses, a cider press, a compost heap that is fed by our dining halls, and productive animals; we have a community of farmers who see themselves as stewards; we have activist neighbors to fight with us against an incoming CAFO (confined animal feeding operation). What we didn’t have until recently is a food service administration that saw incorporating these resources into our already well established food operation as feasible and profitable. In 2005, I started to campaign for the change with several other students who shared my concerns. With a small group of students from the Environmental Campus Organization (ECO), I tabled on campus, got hundreds of signatures on a petition for local, organic food, and started talking to our food service director. Our school is contracted with Sodexo, and I soon realized that to break through any bureaucratic road blocks, I’d have to speak with other universities in the Midwest (since Sodexo operates under regional regulations) that have already made a transition to more independently sourced foods. By working with our local Hyvee, we were able to start carrying a nearby Mennonite dairy’s milk, in glass bottles in convenience stores, and they agreed to purchase meats from a more sustainable producer for holiday meals.
Discussing local food purchasing options at the 2008 "Regional, Seasonal: Feasible" supper (photo courtesy the Truman Media Network)
In 2007, we organized a local food dinner for over 100 people, to show that it was possible. And in 2008, we did it again. This time, we invited the key players in the food game: food administrators, students who had been active in the project, and faculty who were on our side. We were also able to show the Sustainable Food Systems conference DVD from the previous spring, which explains how typical set backs for transitioning to local and organic foods can be overcome. The viewing was helpful, but our food service management still had concerns about insurance risks, the time it would take to organize picking up food from multiple farmers rather than a single distributor (Sysco), and the seasonal limitations of local food.
Networking with other universities made changes happen faster. By allowing Sodexo administrators from other Midwest schools to talk directly to our own, we got past the feeling that neither party fully understood our perspective. Donna Bauck and Sandy Olson-Loy at the University of Minnesota Morris were particularly helpful in explaining how to set up an external purchasing route for ease of local food distribution. At the end of last year, a general commitment was made to begin purchasing local foods. But as students, this doesn’t mean stepping back. This semester, several students are expanding on a local food directory so the necessary contacts are in the hands of our food service and our friends. The current directory can be seen at http://www.foodcircles.missouri.edu/nemoeatlocal.pdf. A small group of students is extending our real food system philosophy to a garden project at Ray Miller Elementary school in Kirksville, equipped with its own dining hall compost. Good food, as Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini emphasizes, is socially just, environmentally sound, and economically feasible. As active food citizens, growing, cooking, preserving, feeding, and eating, it’s our responsibility to nourish good food.