Students Demand Sustainable Food

By Eliza Teach

A food survey sent to the student body by the Student Government Association (SGA) on Oct. 28 has provided the SGA with concrete data based on 1,219 student responses to help focus and forward the real and sustainable food movement on campus.

“We were basically trying to assess people’s willingness to support sustainable food initiatives on campus for the dining hall,” said Director of Environmental Affairs for the SGA Jake Nonweiler ’14. “The purpose of the survey was to find some definition of sustainable food that people agreed upon or wanted to work for.”

The SGA hoped to gauge student opinion surrounding what real and sustainable food is. According to the survey, “real” food falls into one or more of the following parameters: humane, Fair Trade, ecologically sound or local.

“Unfortunately for the dining halls purposes we can’t focus on all of the categories, so we really wanted to focus in on what the students considered sustainable foods to be and what was practical,” Nonweiler said.

Nonweiler found the discrepancy between the student-estimated amount of organic food in the dining halls and the real amount to be interesting. Just less than 75 percent of the 1,219 survey respondents estimated the amount of organic food to be above the zero to five percent range, when in fact the real amount is between zero and five percent. On a scale of one through five, with five signifying ‘strongly agree,’ the average student response was a 3.33 in response to the statement ‘we need more organic food.’

According to Nonweiler, the goal of the estimation questions surrounding local and organic food were included to determine students’ perceptions of food in the dining halls and what that might mean for future initiatives.

With regard to local food, most students believe than 10 to 20 percent of food in the dining halls is categorized as local, which corresponds to the true proportion found in dining halls. Given the aforementioned one to five scale on the topic of local food, the average response was 3.49 in response to the statement ‘we need more local food.’

“I wasn’t expecting an overwhelming response of student desire for sustainable food,” SGA President Rachel Liddell ’15 said. “I think that the survey shows a pretty moderate stance on the issue, however, I am impressed by the number of people who participated. Clearly the real food movement as a significant following and a high profile on campus.”

According to Liddell, the moderate responses have not given the SGA a clear jumping off point.

“It’s nice to have some more concrete information about what people care about and what’s important to them about dining, but I don’t have a number that justifies a broad sweeping change,” Liddell said.

While the survey responses proved inconclusive for Liddell, there is one specific food-related initiative she nevertheless plans to pursue.

“I want to investigate really specific products that we can attack,” she said. “For example, although it is easy and cheap to buy coffee that was farmed in a really unsustainable, inhumane, and socially irresponsible way, it is also totally possible to purchase fair trade coffee. Doing so would show our commitment to buy real and just food, and improving our coffee purchasing practices is an attainable goal.”

While she claimed that being product-oriented is a feasible way of thinking about Dining Services modifications, she admitted that it is an imperfect science at best. It does, however, involve taking immediate action rather than debating for a long time over what action should be taken.

“On the one hand this solution is highly imperfect and doesn’t solve the larger problem. On the other, it enables us to vote with our dollar for companies that we trust, applaud and want to succeed,” Liddell said.

After the survey is officially published, Nonweiler and Liddell hope that statistics from survey results will be able to help the many student-led food organizations on campus to further their initiatives. Liddell also hopes to meet with Vice President for Finance Patrick Norton and Director of Dining Services Matthew Biette to begin discussing attainable food-related goals.

“The SGA’s purpose here is to say what students are saying about food issues,” Nonweiler said. “So rather than small organizations trying to guess, we have a better assessment of more than 1,200 students who said certain things about the food that we think is valuable.”

Campus Sustainability Coordinator on the Food Committee and Food Cluster leader Natalie Valentin ’15 stressed the importance of the survey to the Food Cluster in that the information it provided will be used for educational purposes.

“Knowing what misconceptions are out there is critical for educating people, and knowing what the general student population cares about is essential to creating a more inclusive movement,” Valentin said. “We have a wonderful collection of students on campus who are really passionate about food, but it is easy to get stuck in a bubble of our own enthusiasm and ideas. Through the food survey, we wanted to give everyone else a voice.”

Nonweiler summarized one of the primary functions of the survey as testing whether a food movement is even valuable to begin with.

Although Liddell stressed that many responses were moderate, the survey does show a trend of support for more sustainable food options. Just over 60 percent of student respondents voted ‘agree’ or ‘strongly agree’ in response to the statement ‘Middlebury College should make a written commitment to take an active role in creating a more sustainable, healthy, and fair food system.’

“Every indication that we’ve gotten, especially with EatReal, is that this is a valuable movement and that it does have traction,” Nonweiler said. “It is becoming more active, and more students are jumping on board.”

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