Putting Our Money Where Our Mouths Are

By Guest Contributor

Stu Fram ’13 is from Waterbury, Vt.

Middlebury is on track to achieve carbon neutrality by 2016, an accomplishment whose imminent realization can be ascribed to the administration’s commitment to environmental leadership, to the tireless work of the Sustainability Integration Office and most importantly, to the vision of students.

When it comes to food, however, the College sorely lacks any such explicit policy or goal. This is why Real Food Week, organized by EatReal, was so vital. Middlebury does purchase some food locally; in fact, 20 percent of the food on our plates comes from within 250 miles of campus, a pretty impressive figure compared to our peer institutions. But when you consider that of the 98,000 pounds of chicken purchased last year, virtually all (read: 99.99 percent) was sourced from non-local and industrial factory farms — facilities with extremely high environmental, health and social costs — it casts a more sobering light on the situation. If such were true only of poultry, I would be less inclined to call “fowl,” but the unfortunate truth is that all of the meat served in the dining halls comes from such facilities. Even a bad pun cannot amend that.

Twenty percent local food, 0 percent local meat.

This is by no means a categorical appeal for vegetarianism, but instead a call for more institutional consistency. Middlebury has come to be recognized as a forward-thinking institution for espousing values such as global citizenship and community engagement. Given its reputation for social consciousness, many assume that the College sources its food in an equally responsible way. Indeed, a campus-wide survey distributed by Dining Services in 2011 suggests that 40 percent of students believe that a majority of the meat served in the dining halls is sourced from local or organic farms or grass-fed cooperatives. As I have indicated above, nothing could be further from the truth.

I am not suggesting that Middlebury is conspiratorially withholding purchasing information from students. On the contrary, I am well aware that the College has a budget to balance and that local and sustainably raised food is generally more expensive. With just 1.3 percent of the College’s total budget allotted to Dining Services, even a 0.5 percent increase in their slice of the total budget would be anything but an exercise in budgetary squandering. Given the economic downturn, I can fully appreciate the need to spend responsibly — I maintain that purchasing more local food would be the perfect way to do just that.

To that end, I would like to emphasize that Real Food Week, and EatReal’s implicit advocacy for a larger dining budget, should not be interpreted as an attempt at fiscal reappropriation by a disgruntled minority. With 75 percent of respondents to the recent SGA survey indicating support for “Middlebury spending more on dining in order to provide locally sourced food,” demand for change is already widespread. It is likely that the administration has hitherto failed to explicitly acknowledge or address this demand at least in part because of the fact that food issues do not fit neatly into any one environmental, health or social category. As such, it is our responsibility as students to continue articulating why food issues merit inclusion in broader environmental and social conversations to the point that they can no longer be ignored. My hope is that Real Food Week was a step in this direction.

Although in some ways this issue’s prospective success relies upon overcoming administrative inertia, as students we already possess agency to effect change on our own. We are incredibly privileged to have a unique meal plan (or lack thereof, really) that allows us to enter the dining halls as many times as we want and eat as much as we want. Yet such a permissive system has occasioned a tragedy of the commons: a culture of taking and not returning dishes and of wasting perfectly good food. Instead of spending money on the local food that we so demand, Dining Services is forced to use much of its present budget on replacing dishes and on food that never gets eaten. Even minor behavioral adjustments could go far in ensuring a more efficient use of resources.

I would like to reiterate that the costs associated with food purchasing are more than merely economic: although factory farmed meat is inexpensive, it bears undeniable environmental and social costs. In promising carbon neutrality and its associated commitment to environmental and social responsibility, the College is failing to address this institutional inconsistency — Middlebury is patently contradicting its own mission.

Not only would the reallocation of funds for the purpose of more responsible food purchasing correct this incongruity, but it would also benefit the planet, the vitality of local communities and farmers and us — the daily beneficiaries of Dining Services’ hard work. By virtue of our universal use of the dining halls, we all stand to benefit from demanding and effecting such positive change. Moving forward after Real Food Week, let us continue to do just that.