Student Activism: It’s What’s For Dinner

Lily Carlisle-Reske '17

Contributing Writer

I felt a shock of excitement and curiosity entering the Smith College kitchens. I was expecting to see wooden crates of local produce as featured in the college’s dining service web page. However, I instead found myself staring as five-gallon bags of frozen goods were emptied into warming trays. It was a far cry from my five-year stint selling hand-rolled croissants at my hometown bakery.

It wasn’t just the food bags that marred my initial impression; it was the oversized Mexican strawberries gleaming benignly in the buffet as blizzards raged outside. It was the stunning nonchalance with which peers scraped entire meals into the overflowing compost.

Actually, I think it was the pre-peeled garlic from China and a curiously colored melon-sized object referred to as a “cheese ball.”

These are the staples of a dining service based not in sustainable agriculture, social responsibility or community health but instead in convenience.

In general, university dining reflects the global food system on which the United States depends: a network that delivers a wide variety of specific food commodities quickly. This massive operation functions with reliance on corporate providers, environmentally destructive industrial agricultural and outsourced production that is often characterized by abuse and unfair wages. These practices are condoned in order to compete in and monopolize global markets.

The lack of transparency in corporate food providers, distance of production sites and the hazy environmental and social histories of large-scale food production fosters a deep disconnect between production and consumer. These are the trends that enable the wasteful and unsustainable food culture that I glimpsed during my first day in the kitchens.

Upon speaking with dining hall chefs this semester, I discovered — unsurprisingly — that they, too, were frustrated by the reliance on pre-packaged, inorganically grown products hailing from distant countries. “The changes [in food purchasing over the past 25 years] are reflecting the changing student body; it’s about convenience now,” one dining chef explained. Shaking his head, he went on to say that if Smithies wanted more local, sustainably grown food in the dining halls, they would need to get used to the limits of seasonal ordering; the automated purchasing system would need to be completely re-thought and the college would have to hire more prep cooks.

However, students are not as complacent in their disconnected role in the food system as they may appear. In recent years, their frustration surrounding university dining has been growing. There now exists a myriad of student food justice organizations buzzing on campuses nationwide. These organizations are working towards shifts in money, mentality and power that would bring a different focus to food services at educational institutions.

There are 21 million college students in America, with universities spending over five billion dollars on food annually. These students hold a unique position in the alternative food movement. Relying on meal plans, they are exempt from the somewhat elitist personal initiatives extolled by the alternative food movement. During their four years at university, student food activists can have an enormous influence on the deep-reaching pockets of institutions’ food budgets.

The influence of student activist organizations is widespread. The Food Recovery Network has donated over 630,000 pounds of food to pantries and shelters since its inception in 2011, and the Real Food Challenge has secured over 30 university pledges across the nation to invest in fairly traded, local, humane and ecologically sound “real” food.

At Smith, chapters of the Food Recovery Network and Real Food Challenge are very active, in addition to other organizations fighting for a more just food system.

In 2011, the Animal Advocates of Smith College secured all cage-free, humane-certified egg products for the dining halls. The Food Recovery Network collects hundreds of pounds of leftover food from Smith weekly, and the Real Food Challenge Team conducted a semester’s worth of research revealing that, out of all of Smith’s food purchasing, only nine percent is invested in “real” food. At the end of this semester, they will ask President McCartney to sign a pledge committing to investing 20 percent of dining service’s budget in “real” food.

As it turns out, most students want more than the convenience of meals prepared three times a day — they also want to take responsibility for the social and environmental impact of their schools, on both a local and global scale.

Now, just as in the past, the youth of America are challenging abusive and destructive power structures and investments that fail to reflect a global conscience. Academic institutions and corporations need to open their eyes to the disconnected purchasing practices that their main customers are fighting against. As students, it is up to us to carry on the fight for university purchasing transparency, community cooperation and fair industry practices. Cheese balls, your time is up.