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College Campuses, Students Look For Sustainable Food Systems

Lambs grazing at the Antioch College campus farm
courtesy of Antioch College
Lambs grazing at the Antioch College campus farm

Reading, writing and root vegetables – that might be the new future for education. Commentator Bob Brecha from the University of Dayton has been noticing a trend among college students when it comes to food security and sustainability.

Over the past few years, a quiet movement has been growing on college campuses around the country, including here in the Miami Valley.  Even at higher ed institutions without traditional agriculture programs, many students have become interested in food as one way of thinking about a more sustainable future.  What are the issues that drive students to look so carefully at what they're eating?

There are probably lots of reasons for the campus food movement, but certainly one is the visceral sense that it’s important to think a bit about what we put into our bodies.   This is part of a much broader trend in the US that has seen us make a long overdue correction from decades of fast-food, bland food and industrial food.   In the early 1990s, I spent two years living in Germany, where there was still a culture of good, fresh bread and produce, and of course, high-quality beer.  Right around the time I came back to the US, I started to notice the rise of craft beers, farmers markets, organic food and artisan bakeries, all things that are helping re-define how we eat.

Within the last few years, food issues have become a natural way for the college students I teach to enter into discussions of localized economic systems, as well as environmental and social justice issues. It’s also become a way to reconnect with the natural world.  During this past academic year I was involved in separate conversations with three colleagues – a sociologist, a dietitian and a philosopher - who were all planning to offer a course around the theme of food justice.  They got together and decided to offer their courses at the same time so that they would be able to work together. They also worked with local community partners, to create an interdisciplinary learning experience for students.

Many students seem to be pushing for even more.  Antioch College, when it re-opened a few years ago, hired a college farmer as one of its first core employees.  Antioch has remained true to this initial commitment by having interns work on the campus farm, and by planning to increase the scale of farming.  Some critics of college farming ask what this has to do with liberal arts education, but I believe that students are often smarter than some of us faculty and graduates from past decades.  Of course there’s a need for the classical liberal arts and for social and natural science courses.  But how do we connect these to the “real world”?  What better way to learn biology than by watching natural systems grow and interact, or to understand how energy flows from the sun to our table, or to grasp the concept of ethics by studying the economic and access issues around food?

The goal of education lies not in vocational training for a specific job, but in the more important skill of learning how to think critically about the world and its complex challenges.  To accomplish this does not mean abandoning a traditional curriculum, but it may mean re-thinking how we organize the educational system.  Traditional disciplines such as physics, philosophy and political science became a convenient way to organize learning in schools and universities a century or more ago, and the silos have not really changed in that time.  I sense that many students do not feel wedded to these narrowly-defined boundaries, and increasingly, younger faculty members also move freely between domains.

For much of the past few centuries we could treat various facets of the world independently, developing, for example Clean Air Acts and Clean Water Acts.  We’ have entered an age in which the water, energy, food and climate systems are increasingly intertwined – the epoch of the Anthropocene, when human activities have a significant impact on the earth system.  The earth is no longer, if it ever was, an infinite source of material and an infinite sink for waste.  Our educational system must recognize this situation, and students seemingly understand this intuitively.  Maybe this is really the meaning of the expression “food for thought.”