Category Archives: farming

Thesis Review: Placing the Apple

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Please note: I am soliciting reviews of recent dissertations in the Anthropology of Food. So if you have written a recent thesis or would like to review one, you can contact me directly: Katharina Graf, Associate Book Reviews Editor (kg38@soas.ac.uk).

Placing the Apple: Exploring the Urban Applescape. Poppy Nicol. Ph.D. Thesis, Cardiff University, Cardiff (Wales). 2015.

Camelia Dewan (Stockholm University, Sweden)

Poppy Nicol’s thesis Placing the Apple explores the dynamics of the urban apple in the UK. She follows the different types – commodity and club brands as well as different (heritage) varieties of apples across the food distribution chain from multiple retailers (like Tesco) and wholefood markets to community food initiatives and local growers and sellers. The thesis is firmly based in the intersection between geography and anthropology through its use of political ecology and multi-sited qualitative fieldwork to follow the urban apple in order to understand ‘the becomings of the apple’. The thesis itself presents a strong stance supporting place-based, knowledge-intensive, community-centered practices of ‘agro-ecology’ and argues that this has the potential to support more regenerative agri-food systems, particularly in city-regions, while being critical to dominant neoliberal forces that dominate the apple production and distribution sectors.

Throughout the six substantive chapters, Nicol shows the different motivations of producers, retailers and community-centered growers. The use of the London-based social enterprise Growing Community to illustrate agro-ecological logics in the urban apple is one that is particularly original and revealing in terms of an alternative food system within an urban environment. The concept of ‘agro-ecological practices’ permeates the thesis and Nicol juxtaposes it with global, intensified modes of agriculture. In doing so, the author departs from ideas of ‘urban metabolisms’ and ‘depletive agri-food systems’ where the commercial, globalized and corporate apple contributes to the depletion of biodiversity, soil and nutrition caused by the global industrial agri-food system in its search to maximize yield and profit. This is then contrasted with ‘regenerative agri-food systems’ based on agro-ecological practices aiming to optimize ecological processes promoting soil health. Nicol draws on Altieri (1988) to suggest that such practices consider cultivation as a food web rather than a food chain, whereby all elements, cycles and processes within the system are implicitly interrelated, interconnected and interdependent of one another. Such an approach enhances beneficial ecological processes to create a healthy soil with vital soil microbial and mycorrhizal activity that supports more resilient and efficient farming systems. This often involves a range of agronomic techniques, including intercropping, the recycling of manure and food crops into fertilizers and agroforestry, that reduce the use of external inputs and maximize resource efficiency (De Schutter 2014:9).

Nicol argues that the case of Growing Communities in Hackney, London, demonstrates how agro-ecological communities of practice support citizens to grow, trade and consume food in more healthy, ecological and just ways. With the support of the local authority (Hackney Council), housing associations and a number of community groups, Growing Communities have made use of public, private and community-owned space for expanding their patchwork-farming network, box-scheme distribution hubs, farmers’ market as well as the Growing Communities headquarters. Nicol offers many positive examples of the organization’s attempts to support apple variety diversity, including how it has supported a number of school food-growing projects within the borough, developed a network of market gardens and worked with local resident’s groups to plant a community orchard in the public Hackney area. It has also gone beyond Hackney by acquiring a 1.4-acre ex-council nursery site in Dagenham, the first Growing Communities ‘Starter Farm’, which is leased from Dagenham Council. Instead of being on a commercial basis, Growing Communities have focused on the multi-functionality of social spaces. Its distribution sites include three health food shops, an arts center, studio, a community garden, community center, city farm, two churches and a climbing center, as well as the Growing Communities headquarters, enabling interactions between residents.

The logic extends also to the shifting preferences of producers and buyers. Rather than the criteria for sameness, consistency of taste, durability (thicker-skinned apples) and perfection, pickers of local agro-ecologically grown apples tend to use their senses (taste, smell, sensation) to select apples for harvest, those that are deemed unfit for human consumption are used as forage matter or animal feed. The buyers of these apples, in turn, were found to prefer taste over looks and found beauty in imperfection after initial hesitation of how different these agro-ecological apples were compared to the more recognized supermarket brands. Nicol admits that though these sales are marginal in terms of proportions of apples consumed within the borough, she argues that Growing Communities provides a case of a community-led distribution scheme enabling the entry of the agro-ecological and proximate apple into the city.

There is a tendency in the thesis to strongly promote Growing Communities and agro-ecological practices. However, by showing how Hackney Council enable this community-based initiative by providing long-term access and security of tenure of production, trade and distribution sites, Nicol shows the importance of how regenerative agri-food systems are dependent upon securing physical, economic and political space that support and enable such practices. She suggests that forms of governance at local, regional, national and international levels can foster or frustrate the scaling-out of agro-ecological practices. Drawing on existing research by Altieri and Nicholls (2012:22), she argues that powerful political and economic organizations and institutions tend to support research and development for the conventional agro-industrial approach, while research and development for agro-ecology and sustainable approaches have been largely ignored or even ostracized. Nicol found that governance – particularly at national-level – marginalizes agro-ecological practices via the rise of investment in research and development in sustainable intensification, retail-led forms of market transformation and an obstructive policy and planning framework. She argues that practices of consolidation, privatization and externalization of risk enacted by a small number of multiple retailers are enacted within an enabling political and regulatory environment.

Nicol highlights that it is the dominance of multiple retailers in terms of market-share and policy environment that further complicate competition from more agro-ecologically oriented supply forms. The challenges of agro-ecological production and trade are compounded amidst a regulatory environment supportive of ‘market-led’ transformation, whereby supermarkets are considered the ‘familiar’ (HM Government 2008:64) and, it is suggested, default shopping environment for most citizens (pp. 223-224). Nicol shows that the corporate logic favors centralized, vertical forms of supply based on large-scale forms of production, while direct forms of supply tend to be decentralized and horizontal, facilitating trade with small-scale producers.

Nicol states that her analytical framework is informed by political ecology, relational geographies and social practice to explore “the distribution of power and politics in the scaling-up and scaling-out of [agro-ecological versus industrial] practices in and through place” (p. 278). Yet, the theoretical development and linkages to political ecology and how power dynamics shape the availability of the apple and structure of its trade could be developed further with clearer examples. It would have been useful to understand the political ecology that leads to agro-ecological practices being actively ‘marginalized’. In terms of scale, could it be that there is a limit to how much locally-grown and agro-ecological apples can meet demand? Could scaling up of spaces in the borough itself help meet the apple demand of the Hackney community considering that many community members are dependent on food vendors and multiple retailer brands buying commodity and ‘club’ brand apples? The question is, even if access to physical space was not precarious, would it be enough?

A deeper political ecology analysis of the constraints in scaling up agro-ecological apples would strengthen this thesis further. In terms of the use of ‘relational geographies’ and the recognition that non-humans do not just exist within the city and how things ‘become’ food, this could also be developed further with more explicit examples and linkages. It would also be interesting to gain a further understanding of whether the growers and Growing Communities themselves speak about their practices as agro-ecological? In addition, how do her interlocutors perceive the link between agro-ecology and the commodified and brand apples and do they express any concerns about sustainability, particularly in terms of ‘degenerative agri-food systems’ and how commodity and ‘club’ brands may reduce the biodiversity of apple varieties globally?

Her comparison between traditional, organic and biodynamic orchards and agroforestry is an interesting one, particularly in terms of how “biodynamic agriculture considers both the material and spiritual context of food production and works with cosmic as well as terrestrial influences” (p. 214). Pest and disease are seen as indicative of unbalanced fertilization and lack of soil fertility within biodynamic practices. It would be interesting to learn more about how these growers understood and/or embraced ideas of spirituality in agro-ecological practices as this speaks to current anthropological discussions on vitality, life-force and the unseen, as well as burgeoning research and the importance of symbiotic relationships between microbiomes, bacteria and fungi with other life forms (e.g. Tsing et al. 2017). In the concluding chapter, Nicols advocates that agri-biodiversity, agro-ecological and place-based practices as well as producer livelihoods are to be supported, but it is unclear what perspectives and information underlie these suggestions. Why agro-ecological above biodynamic or organic? Such a discussion would strengthen the arguments further.

Overall, this is a well-researched thesis that provides an interesting example of alternative food movements in the UK through the example of a community-based social organization using creative means to expand urban forms of gardening and local produce.

References

Altieri, Miguel, Environmentally Sound Small-Scale Agricultural Projects: Guidelines for Planning. Edited by H.L. Vukasin. New York: Codel. 1988.

Altieri, Miguel and Clara Nicholls, “Agro-Ecological Scaling-up for Food Sovereignty and Resilience.” Sustainable Agriculture Review 11 (2012): 1–29.

De Schutter, Olivier. “Final Report: The Transformative Potential of the Right to Food.” Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier De Schutter. New York: UN General Assembly. 2014.

HM Government, Food Matters: Towards a Strategy for the Twenty-First Century. London: Cabinet Office. 2008.

Tsing, Anna L., Heather A. Swanson, Elaine Gan, and Nils Bubandt, eds. Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet: Ghosts and Monsters of the Anthropocene. London: Minnesota University Press. 2017.

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Filed under anthropology, book reviews, city, farming, food activism, reviews, United Kingdom, urban

Lentil Underground

 

Ellen Messer
Tufts University

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Carlisle, Liz. Lentil Underground. Renegade Farmers and the Future of Food in America. NY: Gotham Books, 2015.

Lentil Underground is a book that many of us have been waiting for: a readable, journalistic rather than staid academic account of U.S. farmers’ struggle to create a mainstream organic, multi-crop alternative to conventional and genetically-engineered, monocrop agriculture. The story interweaves a triple interpretative biography of the farmers, the plant varieties in ecosystems, and their struggling but ultimately successful business, Timeless Seeds. It constructs the history of this Montana organic agricultural business through the life stories of its diverse and colorful members, the new-old seeds and biodiverse agro-ecological products and practices they re-pioneered, and the collective material- and information-sharing they achieved through collective action and networking. The narrative begins in 1974 and traces a developmental, alternative agricultural path that roughly parallels the Green Revolution and its successor Green-Gene Revolution, the mainstream energy- and chemical-intensive agricultures, through 2014. The experiences of the farmers, researchers, and business interests who jointly made these organic activities happen, provide additional shining testimonies to the role of government in encouraging or discouraging a healthier, more resilient rural environment and economy in an era of Big Agriculture, big corporate lobbying interests, and big risks for farmers facing uncertain natural and economic climates that put many conventional agriculturalists out of business.

The author, a product of University of California at Berkeley’s agro-ecological, sustainable-food, and writing programs (think Miguel Altieri, Alice Waters, and Michael Pollan), dedicated three years to interviewing the principals and telling their individual, family, and networking stories. These colorful, dedicated, and resourceful characters, almost all of whom originally come from Montana farming backgrounds, include founding family farmer, Dave Oien, a philosophy and religious studies major who then contributed agroecology and business as assets to transform and manage their family farm and Jerry Habets, who backed into lentils and organic farming when he could not afford the chemicals necessary to continue conventional farming. Others are Casey Bailey, whose diverse background in music, urban studies, Liberation Theology, and counter-cultural activism, made him an excellent candidate for diversified farming and associated collective decision-making, and Doug Crabtree and Anna Jones-Crabtree, who combined day-jobs that paid the bills and provided medical benefits with their passion, organic farming. Their politics range from right-wing libertarian to left wing progressive and this is Carlisle’s point: there is considerable diversity in the politics of the organic farming movement. Seasoning this mix are also heroic plant breeders and ecologists, who provide biological and physical (soils) information and materials to assist and improve organic operations.

Carlisle correctly realized that careful, qualitative, investigative research could document how U.S. and state government investments and regulations at multiple levels helped or hindered a more diversified agriculture, and what farmer-led actions could contribute to sustainability — farming and livelihoods — which was everyone’s value. The additional insights she gained over the course of these interviews concern the human community and what Frances Moore Lappe, in various food writings, has termed “living democracy.” Timeless Seeds constructed its network and thrived because it made human community an integral component of its sustainability vision. Their combined collective, seed, and farmer biographies also offer an argument against the growing preference for “local” food and agriculture, as the markets that make this regional success story possible illustrate another kind of globalization — from the grass-roots. All could agree that agricultural business-as-usual was not working for farmers like them or farms like theirs, and found that they needed grassroots organizations to support and voice their collective commitment to organic, multi-crop, and pluralistic botanical and social alternatives. They also required government support for research and organic-friendly regulations to make their enterprises viable. On these government agendas they have been partly successful in winning some dedicated (rather than “bootlegged”) funding for soils and pest research that will provide an evidence base for optimal, multi-crop organic management strategies. They have also managed to acquire some farmer protection against lawsuits should licensed GMO seeds incidentally rather than intentionally sprout in their fields, and bans on GMO wheat until such time as their Asian markets agree to accept this product.

The text is beautifully crafted to let the voices of the farmer families speak for themselves, and in the process recount the sorry history and ecology of US agriculture. Some are the children of family farmers, who followed US Department of Agriculture guidelines, investing yearly in ever higher priced seeds, energy, machinery, chemical fertilizers, and pesticides but regularly losing crops to bad weather, poor soils, or evolving pests. They found the only protection temporarily rescuing them from penury was government crop insurance or payments. So long as they followed the rules (monocropping with chemicals), the government payments at least partially bailed them out. But most years, this was not a living and future prospects were bleak. Both the soils and the human beings who worked them were exhausted, their health eroding from chemical poisons. The older generation despaired of leaving their farming legacy to their offspring. This next generation, however, a group of rugged and well-read individualists, nevertheless learned to apply modern scientific understandings of their more diversified agricultural past, and also created the kind of community that shares and helps each other overcome isolation, trauma, and risks. These social as well as agri-technical developments are clearly showcased in the stories of farmers’ improvement clubs, where new farmers could present and help solve each other’s problems, and ultimately stay in business. Their stories convincingly show that American rural life might yet thrive, based on the vision and determination of these fully dedicated but for economic reasons, part-time farmers.

As a text for teaching, I find author Liz Carlisle and her subjects are at their best when they are assessing the tradeoffs, and sometimes the ironies of their situations. Most of these tradeoffs concern economics and politics. Slowly, these new “weed” farmers, who know Montana farming can’t continue to practice business as usual because the older generation is going broke, learn to experiment first with new cover crops and green manure species, and only later add forage, feed, and food into the mix to make their farming operations viable. Although throughout this multi-decade learning process, individual farmers and the group as a whole learn to value organic agriculture by assessing energy saved and chemical expenditures avoided, they need crops they can sell at a premium if farming households are to survive. As Timeless Seeds moves into new legumes, in new combinations, and sometimes in combination with other “heritage” seeds such as purple barley, emmer (farro), and spelt, or more common grains and livestock that have the added value that they are produced and certified organic, the instigators find they must learn business skills and spend increasing time on administration and marketing.

These learning curves, which demonstrated that Timeless needed to have multiple crops and not rely on single buyers, proved as challenging as the field and processing skills they accumulated and shared over time. The cases developing markets for “new” legumes such as French green lentils (a one-time shot with Trader Joe’s) and “Beluga” black lentils (promoted by one particular high-end chef and then marketed through his client networks) are particularly instructive. Although most participating farmers entered organic farming with idealistic values that they were going to save the land and the population’s health, they find that some of their best customers are Asian nutrition supplement businesses, who turn their high-protein legumes into biochemicals that feed highly industrialized animal operations or high-income consumers. As one farmer opines: this is not why she signed up to work hundreds of hours each week, instead of living a normal professional life with a vacation house and time.

Another trade-off concerns government payments: was the goal to get government off or on the farmers’ backs? As organic farmers sought answers to agronomic questions, could they get equal funding for organic (as compared with conventional) agriculture, or create commodity check off payments that would help educate and promote organic production and consumption? Another effort was to access crop insurance, because, while organic production helped cool and sequester moisture in soils, it did not make one immune to natural weather disasters, which include not only ferociously dry, high temperature seasons, but also untimely rain and hail that can devastate harvests. A third was access to health insurance, because health problems posed a big barrier to sustainable farmers, who usually needed one fully employed spouse with benefits to make sure medical bills were covered. Although networked farmers did very well at sharing experiences and taking care of each other, these grassroots approaches, sadly, could not solve all their problems; they still needed government assistance.

Carlisle and her sources, significantly, also raise some unanswered questions. For example, how should farmers calculate returns on crops, when there are so many different species and varieties, and some of the returns are multi-year contributions to soil structural health and fertility, or plant-community based resilience to crop-specific pests, or simply long-term human health? Is there a more complex answer to the question, can GE ever contribute to soil conservation and restoration when soils and multi-crop ecology are so complex and genetic technologies treat one gene or gene-to-gene interaction at a time? The beauty of this text as an information source and teaching tool is that these questions are raised, and suggest plenty of directions for further research and discussion. It would serve well as a basic supplementary text in U.S. agricultural and food systems and policy courses at undergraduate through graduate levels. It would also make a terrific addition to the reading library of any organic gardener or consumer. Finally, to increase comprehensibility, there is an introductory map of Montana locating all the farms, towns, and major transportation routes mentioned in the text, and a glossary, defining key environmental, economic, and social-political concepts. The book is very beautifully produced, with botanical images and easily readable type in multiple gray to black shades. There is, alas, no index.

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Farm To Table, New Orleans, August 8-10 2015

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The 3rd Annual Farm to Table International Conference is scheduled for August 8-10, 2015, at the New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. F2Ti features the brightest thought leaders and leading practitioners in the burgeoning farm-to-table movement. F2Ti explores the cultivation, distribution, and consumption of food and drink sourced locally to globally. It takes place in tandem with the Louisiana Restaurant Association’s Annual Foodservice & Hospitality EXPO, an event attracting food and beverage professionals from across the country.

This year’s theme, “A Feast for the Senses,” spotlights the sensual aspects of food and drink at every stage of the agricultural-culinary cycle. Topics will include, but are not limited to, best practices in urban farming, bringing products to market, sourcing locally, enhancing sustainability, and the latest trends and developments in the industry, including food science, security, and safety.

Program Features:

  • Panels on best practices in the following educational tracks:

•    Crop to Cup (Brewing, Distilling, Vinting, plus non-alcoholic beverages)
•    Farming and Production
•    Food and Beverage Journalism and Media
•    Farm to School
•    Food Innovation (Science, Technology, Trends, etc.)

  • Keynote speakers of national and international standing
  • Numerous opportunities for networking during the three-day conference program
  • Chef Demos and “Knowledge Center” presentations

WHO SHOULD ATTEND:

  • Chefs, mixologists, and restaurateurs
  • Researchers, academics, and policymakers
  • Farmers and agricultural professionals
  • Writers, publishers, and media
  • Slow food advocates
  • Brewers, distillers, vintners, and distributors
  • Farmers markets and urban farmers
  • Nutritionists and health professionals
  • Grocers and retailers
  • CSA/RSA
  • Foragers
  • Food incubators
  • Food hubs

Additional information can be found here. Registration is here.

F2T is produced by the New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in partnership with the SoFAB Institute and the LSU AgCenter.

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A Summary of Food Movements @Trent University

Prof and Student, Farm Manager and Project Coordinator tending the fields.

Prof and Student, Farm Manager and Project Coordinator tending the fields.

 

Helen McCarthy
Trent University

Student and faculty involvement in food issues at Trent University, in Peterborough, Ontario has been long standing, and there are many new exciting initiatives under development.

To begin, the Trent Vegetable Gardens for student research on campus were initiated by a number of students and faculty and they collaborate heavily with the campus vegetarian/vegan student run café, the Seasoned Spoon. These projects and enterprises are not-for–profit, student initiated, and have been running for about a decade.

More recently, the Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems Program was born. This is, a 4-year honours degree program with an Arts stream and a Science stream. This program is one for students to challenge and think about the dominant global food and agricultural systems that we are all embedded in.

35lbs of chilis harvested from the Experimental Farm, Purchased by Chartwells Sept. 2014

35lbs of chilis harvested from the Experimental Farm, Purchased by Chartwells Sept. 2014

This year, there have been many more projects in development that are proving to have a great potential to create positive change surrounding food services at Trent. These include a newly founded student organization, the Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems Society, a Trent Apiary, a Campus Food Sustainability Working Group, a new contract with Compass Group campus food service providers (Chartwells), and an undergoing campus Experimental Farm and Greenhouse project.

The SAFS Society is an inclusive student group that mandates to increase student engagement and community awareness in food and agricultural sustainability issues.

The Sustainability Working Group aims to be involved in all matters concerning sustainability in the expectations from Chartwells (Compass Group), specifically these include monitoring the progress of projects that aim to procure local food, reduce food waste, increase energy efficiency and follow up on goals surrounding food quality, affordability, diversity and special food needs (vegetarian/vegan, gluten/dairy intolerance, religious restrictions).

Trent Farm Table

Experimental Farm Table at first ever Campus Farmers Market (Chartwells organized)

The Experimental Farm is a very exciting enterprise that has become Chartwells Key Focus Initiative for 2015 at Trent. So far, the 33 acres Trent has allocated has grown 1/3rd of an acre of vegetables as part of a organic amendments research project; vegetables were sold to the Seasoned Spoon, local Restaurants, and to Chartwells, 1 acre of quinoa, and a research project on reducing inputs in common Ontario grain rotations. The expansion and breadth for the following season are being planned presently.

The KFI means that the new food services provider is committed to supporting Trent in creating an environmentally, economically and socially sustainable food production enterprise on campus that would directly provide marketable produce for Chartwells to purchase and use in campus meals as well as student engagement, and program collaboration. They have also committed to providing capital specifically to invest in a campus greenhouse.

These recent projects are what I personally find most exciting about food issues at Trent. I feel that there is potential for real, forthcoming and positive change; creating real awareness and community engagement around broader food and agriculture concerns.

Trent Bees!

Trent Bees!

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Filed under anthropology, farming, food activism, Food Studies, gardening, students, sustainability

Food Forward on PBS

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David Beriss
University of New Orleans

Food Forward is a new documentary series on PBS focusing on people experimenting with new (and sometimes very old) ways of producing food in the United States. The broadcast schedule is available on the PBS website and you can also watch full episodes there. There is a great deal of information about the show available on the Food Forward website as well.

If you visit the web site, you will see that the directors try to distinguish their shows from the cooking competitions, restaurant rescues, and searches for exotic foods that populate food television. But this is PBS, so that is not really a relevant comparison. Instead, Food Forward differentiates itself by not being another documentary about why our food system is inexorably leading us to nutritional and environmental doom. The makers of Food Forward argue that we need a way out, a plan, a way to save ourselves. The episodes document the stories of people who are trying to make food better. They call them “Food Rebels,” because they are taking on the industrial food system, finding ways to produce foods that they claim are environmentally sustainable, healthy, tasty, sometimes even affordable.

I have watched two episodes and the food rebellion looks delicious, the landscapes look beautiful, even the people seem spiritual and remarkably handsome. It would be easy to be cynical about all this — so much optimism in the face of our massive industrial food system might be a bit quixotic. But there is in fact quite a lot to think about here. There are fascinating food innovations, including sustainable farm raised fish in the very first episode. A lot of the innovations are described as efforts to return to older ways of doing things–from fishing with weirs to raising grass-fed beef without antibiotics or hormones. The farmers and fishers who are doing these things are also finding ways to make these methods profitable. These are hopeful films and, frankly, it is easy (and pleasurable) to get swept up in the optimism.

The two episodes I watched, “Go Fish!” and “The Meat of the Matter,” are about fishers, ranchers, and farmers, documenting both production (on ranches, boats, fish farms, etc.) and distribution (community supported fisheries, community supported farmers, restaurants, markets, etc.). There will be episodes that explore urban farming, GMOs, obesity, school lunch, and even hunting (at least 5 episodes are currently available on the PBS site; I assume more are to come). If all the episodes are as good as the first two, any of them could be usefully shown in anthropology classes dealing with food and culture. There is a great deal here to generate discussion among students, many useful questions to be raised. The length of the episodes (about 25 minutes each) also lends itself to class use. Take a look. Let us know (in the comments section) what you think.

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Real Food on Campus

David Beriss
University of New Orleans

Are student activists transforming campus dining? And, if they succeed, what are the implications for the way Americans think about food?

We recently posted an article by Bonnie May, David Burley and Kellen Gilbert, of Southeastern Louisiana University, about efforts by students there to convince their university administration and Aramark (their food service contractor) to source more food locally. They have been building ties to local farmers, organizing a farmers market on campus and working to get Aramark to stock the campus salad bar with local produce. However, Aramark actively resisted these ideas and even took actions that undermined the students’ and farmers’ efforts. Even though SLU is located in a very productive agricultural region, with a long growing season and many farmers eager to work with the university, students eating on campus have very little access to local food.

This is true on university campuses all over the country. But there has also been a great deal of student activism around food, resulting in a growing commitment to local food by some colleges and universities. In perhaps the biggest move in this direction, the California State University system announced this week that 20% of the food on its 23 campuses will, by 2020, meet the standards of the Real Food Challenge (visit the site for details on those standards). The Cal State system is very large, with 447,000 students and 45,000 faculty and staff, spending over $100 million annually on food. This could prove to be a big enough move to catch the attention of companies like Aramark. One of Aramark’s competitors, a company called Bon Appetit, already promotes itself as providing a sustainable alternative food service. Their presence on campuses is probably evidence of successful student activism.

The movement for “real food” on campuses is more complicated than simply sourcing food from local producers. Students, faculty, and staff on campuses around the United States have long debated the quality of the food provided by food services. This has included an interest in food perceived to be healthier than had been offered in the past. But activists have also pushed for food that is more environmentally sustainable, which can mean a lot of different things, including local sourcing of ingredients. It might include food that reflects the local culinary culture, for example. Some have suggested cooperating with local restaurateurs, caterers, and food truck operators to increase the variety of dining options on campus and to encourage local business development. Organizing students to grow food on campus has also been a popular idea.

What does this all mean? It might be tempting to suggest that this is merely a kind of consumerist fight. After all, college is expensive and students are the customers. If they don’t like what they are getting, they have a right to demand something else. Yet that is not really how the fight is framed. Rather, students involved in these campaigns draw on ideas about health, about the environment, fairness (to workers, farmers, and fishers) and about local business. The movement is clearly connected with food activism in other segments of American society. It may represent a challenge to the corporate logic that has come to dominate higher education in recent years.

It would be interesting to hear from SAFN members about their experiences of student food activism. Is food a target for student activism where you work?

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Connecting Students and Farmers—Still Trying

SLU students educating students

SLU students promoting real food.

Bonnie May, David Burley and Kellen Gilbert
Southeastern Louisiana University

Part Two

Our last installment, in spring 2013, left us on a high note as we introduced our student group Reconnect, the environmental sociology class project and the very successful farmers market.  There was a real buzz we all felt at the market on Food Day.  We were excited the diversity of produce grown just a few miles from campus.  It should be possible to have locally grown real food available in our campus cafeteria, right?  The farmers were game.  So, that brings us to…

Corporate Bullies.

Our students challenged the University administration and local Aramark dining managers to source more food directly.  They started by bringing the Aramark manager and the leaders of the local farmers’ cooperative together to develop a plan in which the farmers could regularly deliver sustainable, seasonal produce for the campus cafeteria’s salad bar.  The farmers were excited about the possibilities—not only connecting more with students but also opening up a new market for their produce.  This was a small step, but one both the students and the farmers were convinced could be successful, with potential for growth.

Then, inexplicably, Aramark ceased contact with Reconnect. The students continued to send emails to the dining manager and other personnel, but, still, no response. At the same time this was happening, Aramark’s corporate headquarters issued a national directive forbidding communication with university students affiliated with the Real Food Challenge.

After months of letters and emails from Reconnect requesting meetings, the local Aramark representatives finally reached out to the students right before the next campus farmers market.  The campus dining manager acknowledged the students’ efforts and wanted to be involved but still was not ready to discuss “real food.”

SLU spring campus farmers market

Spring campus farmers market.

Aramark did indeed get involved.   The morning of the farmers market, as the farmers were unloading produce and setting up, Aramark set up their own table.   Right next to the Indian Springs Farmers Cooperative farmers, the dining manager and campus chef handed out brochures highlighting the “local” food they serve and their corporate policy on sustainable practices. They also handed out free fruit and vegetables.  The farmers and students of Reconnect felt this directly undermined their effort and goals.

Instead of cooperating with students, the corporate dining service at our university chose to dismiss a student-led initiative that would not have cost them, and in fact might have enhanced their image of ecological responsibility.  In the meantime, the salad bar in the cafeteria continues to feature tomatoes shipped from Mexico, onions from Washington and iceberg lettuce from California.

Some good has come out of this process.  Students are interested in learning about local farms and continue to support the markets on campus.  More farmers are participating, and local chefs have gotten in on the action, preparing dishes on the spot with the available produce.   We also have a new Farmers Market Manager Internship program.  While there have yet to be negotiations with Aramark, students are looking for other ways to achieve the goals of food justice…

To Be Continued…

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Filed under agriculture, anthropology, economics, farming, food activism, food politics, students