(Organic) Food for Thought on Campuses

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

March 11, 2012

I had just moved to a city­—Portland, Ore­gon—that might lead the nation when it comes to obsessing over food. And I found myself in the midst of a demographic group—undergraduates—prone to imbuing food with all manner of political and ethical meaning. Given my own predilections for pleasurable eating and my status as the author of a book urging Americans to stop overthinking and start enjoying their food, I worried I was in for a vexing experience.

A year later, I can tell you it has been anything but. If the food choices of young people on my campus are any indication, the student population is a lot more sensible and grounded in its relationship with food than the skeptics, myself included, would have guessed. Far more than politically correct faddishness, students' thoughtful engagement with food turns out to have educational as well as nutritional value.

If you saw the debut episode of the TV comedy series Portlandia, you know that Portlanders have a reputation for obsessing about where their food comes from. (The sketch is easily found on YouTube.) When a customer in a restaurant demands to know whether the chicken he's ordering is locally sourced, the waiter responds with a veritable biography of the chicken's life, including the bird's name (Colin).

College students also find themselves the objects of jokes for focusing on food in ways vastly different from previous generations. One spoof circulating on the Internet depicts a stern Secret Service-type character relentlessly pursuing a student who has the temerity to buy a bag of chips for his snack rather than a pineapple. "If you're out there eating bad food," it says, "we'll find you!" And put you away for good, presumably.

I can understand how some people might see it as misplaced energy and ethics when students lobby their campus snack bars to stop carrying packaged nuts and chips, and to sell them from bulk-supply bins instead. It's true that campus conversations about food are a world apart from when the main worry was about the "freshman 15" and the grumbling was about the lousy taste of the cafeteria gruel. But I propose we give today's conscientious young food consumers some credit. There is something admirable about considering the consequences of food­—for oneself as well as the people who grow it, ship it, and prepare it.

It's hard to dismiss as silly the ethical reflection around food that I often find on my campus. This winter, for instance, students turned one of our dining rooms into the site of a "hunger banquet." They discussed childhood hunger, the operations of our state's leading emergency food bank, and the interrelated problems of childhood obesity and food insecurity, all while eating lunches aimed at duplicating what American children often get in school cafeterias. (One option offered at the event: a hamburger and fries with a soda.) It was an impressive flip side to the absurd Portlandia sketch and the excess and privilege it skewers.

Some may find it rich that I would rush to the defense of students who spend so much mental energy on the ethical dimensions of food. After all, I wrote a book partly devoted to chiding American eaters for a Puritanism that can take the pleasure out of food. I stand by my claim that we go too far when we define ourselves as good or bad based on whether the dessert we just consumed was a fudge sundae or a piece of fruit. But there's more than that going on here.

Yes, food is a big deal on campuses. Dining halls offer an abundance of options, from red meat to vegan, raw to fried, traditional Asian dishes to pineapple pizzas. Students can take courses on food politics and debate where the food comes from, how it's packaged, and what's to be done with said packaging once its contents are eaten. We have dining-hall fasts to express empathy with people who have little or no food that day. We have environmental-studies professors and students examining the sustainability of our food systems. We have student activists pushing for the elimination of bananas from dining halls and athletes valuing them for their high potassium content, their long journey and big shipping costs notwithstanding.

It might seem enough to make you throw up your hands and cry out, "Calm down and eat!" But—as I have seen while having meals with students in our dining halls and while talking with them about what they eat and choose not to eat—students' food practices on the whole turn out to be appropriately thoughtful and, often, fully in the spirit of their liberal-arts educations.

In discussions about sustainability, we often hear the college campus spoken of as a laboratory of sorts. Energy use, water management, labor issues—all these and many more campus matters are seen as opportunities for students to study how sustainability works in practice, right under their noses. Perhaps no area offers as much for this kind of exploration as what we eat and drink. It's one thing to discuss in a class how foods and beverages are packaged, transported, and consumed. But when students observe, and participate in, a real-life drive to ban bottled water­ (like the one happening on my campus this semester), the issues and options become more tangible.

Also more tangible now is my own understanding of college students' food culture and experience. I'm struck by how seldom the students seem to cross the line into the unhealthy obsessing that I decry in my book. They're clear in their own minds about their needs, tastes, and ethical considerations, yet remarkably adaptable and flexible. I've seen beefy, red-meat-loving students partaking of the vegan options in the dining hall. Obviously, the vegans—about 15 percent of the dining-room traffic—are not reciprocating with forays to the meat-eaters' stations. Yet they bring the same hearty appetite to the veggie stir-fry and tofu options. Sincere and serious they are. Tied up in knots? Thank heavens, no.

As for the chicken the students eat, you'll see a few similarities between real life and that infamous Portlandia sketch. Some do want to know where the chicken was raised, whether it's organic, and by what standards it was butchered and prepared for the plate.

The chicken's name? That question I've yet to hear.

Barry Glassner is president of Lewis & Clark College and the author of The Gospel of Food (Harper Perennial, 2008).