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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Our Food Future: At Carleton, Lacking Action

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As a member of Food Truth, I have been a part of many campaigns to get students to see their food differently.

We’ve pushed for people to think about the environmental and ethical implications of eating meat and consider the importance of supporting local farmers. We’ve tried to get students to face our large quantities of food waste and sought for greater appreciation of the chefs and farm workers who make our meals possible. I even work on a team that tries to consult with dining services to find potential sustainable product shifts. Yet, to some extent, much of this work fits under the umbrella of “hiding in college from scary ideas.” Despite all this well-intentioned education and reform, these efforts overlook larger “scary” realities by focusing on the food choices of a very small and elite group of people.

For one thing, talking about changing peoples’ choices in the dining hall may have an impact on Carleton’s overall food purchasing, but it overlooks the realities students face when we leave this cushy world where our food is prepared for us. For the majority of our lives, we will be purchasing and cooking our own food, but how often do we talk about the financial realities of a sustainable diet? How many food-issues-educated Carls will be tempted to buy the easiest affordable meal once they have a kitchen of their own?

More importantly, what do these doctrines look like in the face of families that are struggling to put food on the table? Suddenly the conversation leaps from meatless Monday to addressing food access and poverty. Too often these scary subjects are merely acknowledged as major issues then swept under the rug, considered “out of our control,” or worse, “not my problem.”

This is because so many issues in the food system are beyond buying local carrots. They’re deeply intertwined with massive economic, environmental, and social systems. While individual changes need to happen, I do not believe they are the solution. Consider the drought in California, which is predicted to cause a 20-34% increase in prices for a variety of fruits and vegetables. The state grows 71% of our country’s spinach, 90% of our cauliflower and broccoli, 97% of our plums, 99% of our walnuts, 80% of the world’s almonds, and the list goes on. Farmers have been tapping into groundwater for lack of rain, drawing down a crucial and mostly nonrenewable lifeline. Agriculture is the leading use of water in the U.S., but what will happen if it becomes even scarcer? Problems like these require hard decisions across many systems and disciplines and are beyond the scope of any one individual.

The same can be said of other hard aspects in the food system, such as the undeniable influence of mega-food corporations or the incredible amount of food waste. And that’s not even mentioning other large interacting problems like poverty, urbanization, population growth, and climate change. These all come together to leave us with a global food system that ultimately fails to provide food security, or physical and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food for all.

At Carleton we find it easier to talk about the way we eat than what how the world will continue to eat into the future. Discussions remain in the safe realm of protecting our health or honeybees and rarely connect to the fundamental need to sustainably feed a growing and developing planet. Perhaps this is because a “feed the world” angle is often co-opted by Big Ag as an argument to justify controversial technologies and maximizing yields.

But we cannot shy away from everything associated with corporate America for fear it may taint our “pure” activism, and the question they pose is a real one. At the same time, I do not think addressing this reality has to go hand-in-hand with more destructive industrial agriculture. In fact, if higher yields were the answer to feeding people than the U.S. would not be one of the hungriest developed nations. Once again, the prickly issue of first addressing poverty re-enters the conversation. Yet for all of Carleton’s altruism, in my experience this fundamental obstacle is consistently danced around.

So while we can talk all we want about respecting gluten free and vegetarian options or boycotting big business, we should also look into more impactful actions. How can we leverage the influence of food conglomerates and Big Ag to create a more sustainable system? How should we navigate governments and reform our agriculture policies? How do we make the hard choices easy and accessible for those in the world beyond Carleton? Whether you are interested in education, economics, or everything in between, there are places for many approaches to these larger and “scarier” problems, and I feel that these are some of the important questions we should apply our education to.

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