Campus Food Projects: Engines for a More Sustainable System?

By Peggy F. Barlett

Back in 2005, as Emory University embraced sustainability as part of a new strategic plan, it was the physicians on the visioning committee who insisted on including food as a priority.  Recognizing that environmental, economic, health, and social justice concerns intertwined with food, the committee encouraged local sourcing of vegetables, fruits, dairy, and poultry from farms with sustainable certifications.  Imported items (bananas, coffee, tea) could contribute to campus goals by embracing products with Fair Trade or organic certification.

As an anthropologist with long-standing interests in social and environmental justice, I have been an active participant in Emory’s move toward sustainability. From 2007 to 2011, I chaired an active Sustainable Food Committee that brings together campus stakeholders to pursue increased sustainable food purchasing, nine Educational Food Gardens, a weekly campus Farmers Market, regular speakers and panels, an annual Sustainable Food Fair, a student summit on sustainable food, a guide to healthier event catering, and sustainable food information sheets written for general use: (http://sustainability.emory.edu/page/1008/sustainable-food).

Peggy Barlett meets with Burning Kumquat farm leaders at Washington University in St. Louis.

Peggy Barlett meets with Burning Kumquat farm leaders at Washington University in St. Louis.

To inform the work with the Sustainable Food Committee, I also conducted a study of campus sustainable food projects at thirty colleges and universities around the US—small, medium, and large in size, both private and public in funding. It turned out that about half of these pioneering schools had some sustainable food purchasing commitment in their dining program.  Social scientists have debated whether institutional purchasing commitments are capable of having an impact on the global food system, but with an annual budget of $4 billion in food purchases, U.S. colleges and universities would seem to have the capacity to redirect significant purchasing power to an alternative food chain.  In addition, by explaining the rationale for such purchases, higher education can support a more public debate about the costs and benefits of our current food system.

Nevertheless, one of the important findings of my research is that few schools have transparent accounting systems in place to document their claims with regard to new directions in food purchasing.  Such transparency can be seen as a critical next step as more and more institutions embrace the goal of supporting an alternative food chain.

Beyond campus dining, campus food projects include direct marketing and experiential education for students.  About two-thirds of the schools in the sample had some academic program or courses around food issues. Many included dynamic co-curricular activities such as a movie series or Slow Food Club. Three-fourths of schools had a newly-established local farmers market or CSA, thereby making new purchasing patterns more easily accessible to employees as well as students.  Together with the rationales of sustainable food initiatives, these efforts spread an implicit critique of conventional food along with an embrace of emerging alternatives.

Perhaps most surprising is that 25 out of the 30 schools have an active farm or garden.  Farms have long been a feature of schools with a college of agriculture—or of schools with a particular mission, such as Berea and Warren Wilson Colleges—but the addition of farms to liberal arts institutions such as Dartmouth, Hamilton, and Luther and non-agricultural schools such as Stanford, Washington University, and Humboldt State demonstrates a new level of interest among students in agricultural skills, especially in organic production.  Most of these programs have begun since 1995 and offer volunteer opportunities, course credit, or paid internships.  No longer dominated by male students, women farmers are in the majority at some schools.  This embrace of both manual labor and the riskiness of organic production represents a new skill set demanded by students.  At Washington University, students obtained campus land and funds and learned to produce food organically on the Burning Kumquat Farm.  Produce was sold in a low-income neighborhood over the summer.   Such hands-on learning and the popularity of international volunteer experience on farms is evidence of emerging aspects of a new food paradigm that connects ethical action and considerations of place to the daily act of eating.

Anthropologists can contribute in many ways to these campus food efforts.  Courses that draw on anthropological expertise offer insights into the promises and challenges of developing sustainable food systems.   Many campus farms or community gardens require the support of a faculty or staff advocate in order to thrive.  In some schools, faculty can also play a critical role in making sustainable purchasing goals a reality in campus dining halls. Though dining services staff can be strong advocates for new policy directions, alliances between the “operations side” and the “academic side” build the strongest programs and also offer rich educational experiences.  Many campus sustainable food initiatives are led by students as well, so for anthropologists who are not prepared to work personally towards campus change, the adage “support your local hero” may be relevant.  Finally, anthropologists at every level who attend to how food can become a locus for consideration of alternative practices—in production, in distribution, and in consumption—can help lead the way toward a more sustainable food system for us all.

Barlett2011BPeggy F. Barlett is Goodrich C. White Professor of Anthropology at Emory University.  Her research has long concerned the social and ecological dimensions of agrarian change in Latin America and the United States.  More recently, she has focused on sustainability in higher education as a tangible arena in which to understand and enact sustainable development more generally. 

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