Columns

Thomas ’15: Changing the dialogue around food

By
Opinions Columnist
Monday, April 9, 2012

This spring, some 2,760 bright high school seniors anxiously and excitedly received acceptance letters from the University. Many of these eager young minds also received similar letters from our peer institutions and are now faced with the important question, “Why Brown?”

As Brown students, we are happy to rattle off reasons to attend. We pride ourselves on our academic rigor, our inclusive community and our active and engaged student body. We also have beautiful buildings – from the outside, at least – a comfortable geographic location and a unique curriculum that emphasizes student choice and agency. One aspect of our college life, however, that we will probably not hear passed on as encouragement to come to Brown is, unfortunately, the food.

Complaints about Brown dining abound. A significant aspect of my freshman experience has been learning to navigate the food offerings across campus, a process that has been strongly influenced by upperclassmen’s advice that was frequently more akin to whining. The Verney-Woolley Dining Hall isn’t open on weekends. The sushi is overpriced. The meat is mysterious. It’s not called the Ratty for nothing.

We learn to limit indulgent lunches at the Blue Room, shaking our heads that meal credits can’t be used until after four. We avoid tasteless steamed vegetables. The list is long.

Despite this gold mine of opinion material, I don’t want to spend a whole column complaining about food. Rather, I think it’s time to give some recognition to some things Brown Dining Services is doing right that merit examination and encouragement. And in doing so, I hope to change the focus of our dialogue on food.

Specifically, I’m referring to Dining Services’ commitment to sustainability. It is certainly a less discussed facet of our food, but in truth the University makes impressive investments in local produce and locally processed food. I label it impressive because of the logistic difficulties that accompany selecting local, and perhaps more expensive, options when operating on such a macro scale.  

And yet, according to its website, Dining Services is connected with over 30 local fair-trade farms and receives the rest of its produce from local processors that themselves draw from local sources. Buying local rather than from larger corporate food sources not only provides support to local businesses and farms that promote sustainable practices, but it also cuts down on the environmentally detrimental process of transporting food over long distances.

Additionally, 100 percent of our milk is fresh and local. We have a composting program. This list is encouraging.

Also notable is how quickly Brown has adhered to the local food trend. Our community harvest program has existed for almost 10 years, giving local farms the invaluable support of a large purchaser. 

And yet there is also much room for improvement. A closer look at Brown’s Real Food initiative, which is “committed to buying foods that are local, ecological, fair and humane,” reveals its potential for expansion. At the moment, the Real Food section of the Dining Services’ website boasts, “15 percent of our food meets at least one of these Real Food criteria,” and that, “by 2014 we will serve upwards of 35 percent Real Food.” Take a moment to appreciate the humor in that statement – hint: right now we are eating 85 percent non-real food. 

This brings me to why we should all talk more about Dining Services’ sustainability and perhaps less about our day-to-day inconveniences at mealtimes. Rather than limiting our point of critique to just the quality of the meals presented to us, students should also concern themselves with where that food came from and how it was acquired. In doing so, we will help the local  community while also helping ourselves. Locally grown sustainable food is fresher and tastier than packaged food shipped from larger corporate farms. Pushing for sustainable practices might be one of the best ways that we can address our other dining concerns.

Brown is an enormous purchaser of food. We have the capability to catalyze and sustain positive trends in food production and consumption within our local community. The demands that we make on Dining Services will make a difference as to how sustainable food can be produced with success.

Hopefully, the result will be delicious, satisfying food that meets the needs of our student body and is constructive for our community. For right now, we’ll continue to tell incoming students about the academics, social life and great food selection on Thayer Street.

 

 

 

Leigh Thomas ’15 is from Irvington, N.Y. She can be reached at leigh_thomas@brown.edu.