Fire Your Food Service and Grow Your Own

Justin Renteria for The Chronicle

March 11, 2013

American colleges, especially undergraduate liberal-arts institutions that profess a deep commitment to sustainability, environmentalism, and social justice—which, of course, they all do—cannot continue to turn a blind eye to the unsustainable and environmentally harmful practices of corporate agribusiness and its on-campus partners, college food services.

Instead, colleges can and should be playing a significant part in reshaping American agriculture, first by figuring out the exciting, complex, and potentially daunting process of developing an independent, college-operated food service, reliant upon locally and regionally sourced food, and firing their corporate food services. And second by building new, baccalaureate-level programs in agriculture.

Those two steps will allow colleges to get themselves out of an ethical pickle that's been sitting in brine for a decade or more. In the same way that many colleges crow about their LEED-certified buildings, their low carbon footprints, the importance of their communities, and their commitments to everything green, sustainable, and just, they talk about their food. They show beautiful pictures of salads, fruits, and plated meals on their Web sites. They show gardens at harvest and chefs in white hats. The impression is that all this good stuff is somehow directly reflective of the institution itself; that it is part of the ethos and practice of the place.

It is anything but.

In fact, somewhere between 50 and 60 percent of college food services are managed by outside corporations, according to John Lawn, editor in chief of Food Management, an industry newsletter. The three largest­—Aramark, Sodexo, and the Compass Group­—dominate the college and university business. These multibillion-dollar companies have little financial or managerial incentive to begin working extensively with local and regional providers, and individual farms and farmers, to keep their client kitchens supplied year-round.

Meanwhile, higher education's weird fascination with buffet-style dining has resulted in a cornucopia of college eating, with multiple choices and side dishes presented at every meal. That creates a disproportionate amount of waste and is environmentally harmful, expensive, and simply ridiculous. No one eats like that except passengers on cruise ships, conventioneers, conference­goers—and college kids.

If nothing else, there is a clash of missions: A corporation's mission is to make as much profit as it can, a mission the big food-management companies are achieving every day. A college's mission is to teach and guide, but when it is applied to food and food systems, most colleges are uncommitted. That's changing, which is due, as it should be, to the passions and energies of students and faculty.

Real Food Challenge is one young, national organization, started by students and supported by philanthropies, that is advocating and monitoring change. Its mission is to push and prod colleges and universities to take up the organization's food challenge, which calls for 20 percent "real food" (defined as local, fair, ecologically sound, and humane) in their dining halls by 2020. Nine colleges have signed on, and 31 others are in the process.

Real Food Challenge is not alone. Numerous groups focusing on sustainable agriculture and regional food systems are picking up steam in communities and on campuses. And over time—not too much time, I hope—the farms and farmers surrounding those communities—and the new, young farmers who will see opportunity where there was little before—will be the first beneficiaries of locally and regionally focused food systems. The resulting fresh, nutritious food served to students will be one outcome of this deeper and more meaningful relationship between a college and its region.

This relationship between farmers and institutions already exists, usually at colleges that have been at it for years. Among the larger institutions, the University of California at Santa Cruz, for example, is closing in on the 20-percent mark for "real food." Sterling College, in northern Vermont, where I served as president for six years, may lead the smaller schools, with about 70 percent local, regional, or organic food in its kitchens, including something close to 15 percent grown or raised on the campus, the result of having a sustainable-agriculture major. Perhaps my old college is too small, and situated too perfectly in an intensely agricultural community, to provide a scalable sense of what's possible. But I prefer to think it's just the right size through which to perceive the future.

In any case, there is still Step 2: Colleges must seize the opportunities unfolding before them­—the same kinds of opportunities that entrepreneurs, policy makers, foundations, students, and all those foodies across the country are also beginning to see.

Colleges have a unique and adaptable means of achieving long-term results: their curricula. Yet only a handful of the undergraduate liberal-arts colleges in the country have departments devoted to the study and practice of agriculture and food systems at a level leading to a bachelor's degree.

How and why liberal-arts education abandoned the study of agriculture is a question as interesting as that of how the nation is going to find and educate 100,000 new farmers and ranchers, as called for by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, if there are not enough colleges willing to teach them. After all, what tenets of the liberal arts do not apply to the study and practice of agriculture, the engine of civilization?

Today, more and more students are, at best, skirting the curricular edges: establishing gardens, drawing faculty out of the classroom, taking internships and semesters away to try to shape a degree to their interests. But that's not enough.

Only when a college builds a new curriculum around agriculture, when it formalizes a course of study leading to a degree, does it show that it is serious. Without that, academically, agricultural education is all just leafy greens. With it, colleges can begin to harness the wealth of talent and energy that will be needed to build and fill the food basket for tomorrow's world.

William R. Wootton is a former president of Sterling College, in Vermont.