What Colleges Can Bring to the Table

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

May 20, 2012

When it comes to encouraging the development of a healthy and sustainable food-production system in the United States, colleges are in a unique position to nourish young minds, both nutritionally and intellectually, in ways that can change things for the better.

As large institutions that supply food in quantity, colleges can use their purchasing power to bolster the economic life of their communities by supporting local and regional farmers, whose numbers are declining around the United States. As educators, these colleges are also able to provide their students perspective on, as well as training in, sustainable methods of farming and food production, offerings sorely needed in a food-supply chain increasingly dominated by large corporations.

The industrialized food system that supplies most grocery stores and institutional larders is run by and for ever-more-consolidated food-production companies that have little interest in maintaining thriving local economies or making customers' health a priority. Profit is the primary concern, and the social value of food is widely ignored.

Colleges that recognize and embrace this social value—the idea that food is more than just a commodity, more than a collection of calories that costs a certain amount—are in the vanguard of changing how the products that most fundamentally sustain us are grown, transported, processed, and packaged. Their students are eating from and learning how to contribute to a food system designed with the future—their future—in mind.

At the University of Montana, for example, the dining service's excellent Farm to College program is a visible part of campus life, offering educational programming to students as well as fresh, organic, and local food. The program is run using a specialized ordering system designed to favor local products from small farmers. During summer months, 30 to 50 percent of the college's produce now comes from the surrounding countryside. Staff members maintain positive working relationships with many local growers, a development that allows the university to play an integral and supportive role in community life.

Iowa State University presents another positive—if surprising—example of a food-service system that has taken on the challenge of supporting local-scale agriculture. Students chose to pay additional fees to have some of their food purchased from local farms and organic sources instead of the usual corporate suppliers. The idea is to be able to trace a given item back to the people and the land it came from. By this logic, a food company such as Hormel, which has facilities in Iowa, does not qualify for the program because its food is processed from ingredients provided by hundreds of anonymous producers.

There are many other such programs. The Web site Farm to College.Org, which provides information about farm-to-college programs around the country, lists 168 programs at a wide range of institutions, from the entire University of California system to 1,600-student Berea College in Kentucky. Across the institutions listed, students played a central role in instigating the programs, pushing for their establishment twice as often as faculty and staff and more than three times as often as administrators.

Many of the colleges that are changing their dining services are also educating students on questions of food production and natural-resource management that go beyond which pesticides and chemical fertilizers produce the highest yields. The University of Montana maintains a 10-acre farm at which students participate in the yearlong Program in Ecological Agriculture and Society (PEAS). Inspired by the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems at the University of California at Santa Cruz, PEAS trains students in the details of managing a small-scale sustainable farm. They graduate qualified to work in all manner of agricultural enterprises, including starting their own food-related businesses.

At Iowa State, students can enroll in a new "Horticulture Enterprise Management" course offered by the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and taught by a professional from the university's Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture. Students learn about how to manage and run diversified horticultural enterprises in Iowa, a different emphasis from the many other agriculture-oriented classes at this land-grant university.

Students who have been exposed to these ideas, this food, and this type of training are on the front lines of a continuing fight to make sure our food system serves us all well for decades to come. We desperately need to change our priorities around food—both how we produce it and how we eat it—if we are to avoid further exhausting our soils, polluting our waterways, robbing our communities of vitality, and dying of diet-related diseases.

Students trained in alternative ways of approaching the business of food are a bright hope for positive change, whether they become farmers or simply continue their lives as informed consumers. We desperately need more farmers, whose average age in the United States is now 57, and especially farmers who see the social value in food. But we also need better eaters. It is consumers, after all, who are driving the shift toward ecological health, openness, and accountability in food-production practices.

But despite these evident needs, there are far too few colleges exposing students to alternative ideas about food. While many are indeed following the example of the University of Montana and Iowa State, most campuses have yet to fully understand or embrace their potential to help change a badly broken food system, and thereby to set up a more positive future for the next generation of students. It is about time they did.

Katherine Gustafson is a writer whose book about sustainable food, Change Comes to Dinner, was published this month (St. Martin's Press).