Food Science 101: From the Campus to the Planet
Issue   |   Wed, 02/08/2012 - 00:18

Where does a pistachio come from?

Yes, it comes from a supermarket. But until recently, I did not know that it was harvested from tall bushes, mostly from the Middle East and the Mediterranean, and gives a small audible pop when it is ready to be eaten. Then, the harvest begins.
How about Valentine’s Jamaican jerk chicken, island vegetables and cheesy potato soup, followed by a chocolate chip blondie? Val makes the sound of that barricade rising when its food is ready to be eaten. Then, the harvest begins.
Unfortunately, I am not the only uninformed consumer. How much do we know about our food? What impact does our connection to our food have on our eating habits? Last semester, a fellow writer for The Amherst Student disclosed her desire for more late-night food options readily available on campus; while I, and perhaps the rest of the student body, would gladly welcome more food, I worry that measures as fantastical as a food truck or a late-night Val option would further delude the campus into our naïve beliefs about food.

As insulated college students, we are conditioned to eat whatever is available and served to us, but that dangerously relieves us from thinking about the origin and consequences of our food in the dual contexts of its ecological and social identities.
My personal appreciation for my food comes from my family’s home-grown vegetables, from my first job as a wide-eyed 14-year-old working in an ice cream parlor, scrounging and singing for tips that my manager stole from me. And the fact that I eat food. However, my years here at Amherst have spoiled me. I have seldom wondered where I would find food; it is omnipresent at Val. From the planet and through the dining hall, the origin of our food hardly seems to cross our minds.
After all, cheeseburgers are sold all year long, and one can always count on the sunny countenance of Tropicana. Even the seasonality of tomatoes is no longer a problem, since ketchup is a vegetable and a slice of cheese pizza is a balanced meal. We expect only the most yellow bananas to dare step foot in our dining hall, and we would not dare tolerate an apple bruised on its long journey to the basket. Many of us have no idea that much of our chocolate is harvested by gluttonous Hershey, which is fattened off the forced labor and trafficking of children, and most of us have lost the inability to wait for seasonal foods — a lack of discipline perhaps caused by our impatience and need for instant gratification. This separation we experience from the origin of our food is mirrored in our attitudes toward our own dining hall. The outlook that enables our blindness to food production, either by choice or by unawareness, is the same that keeps us from appreciating the more local and immediate context of our food.

Whether or not we care or admit it, our relation to food is a manifestation of our values. Author Ellen F. Davis writes in her book Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture that “superficial knowing” is the reason for the irony that today we have more information about how the natural world functions than ever before, but we are also guilty of its most widespread destruction. Such “superficial knowledge” about our food makes us, myself included, guilty of pursuing a liberal arts education at a prestigious institution without knowing the origin of the food we are served, and then makes us capable of making unreasonable demands on those who serve our food. Thus, the challenge is in reconnecting with the places from which our food comes.

Sure, most of us night owls would enjoy a second or third dinner provided by Val, but the responsibility to keep ourselves content all night does not lie with the College. First-years, you need not fear succumbing to a sad routine of Easy Mac and instant noodles. Instead, take a piece of fruit with you when you exit Val. Make a sandwich or a wrap. Take advantage of farmers’ markets whenever they are available. Make an occasional trip for groceries if need be. A little forethought saves us students a lot of misery and eliminates the need for unsustainable, ineffective and expensive measures like the demand for a late-night Val shift.

Valentine Hall, always the magnet of campus discontent, is actually well-orchestrated, run by the power of able and willing workers. But beneath Val’s serving and dining areas is an incredible team of staff members that man multiple kitchens. As students, if we have grievances about our dining services, we have the right to air them, but we should also realize the limitations of any campus dining hall and uphold the very few responsibilities and privileges given to us. The 10-second pause required to compost our waste before we pass our trays into the hands of workers are often regarded by students as a chore, when it is actually a near-effortless opportunity to reduce our wastefulness and a direct response to previous students’ requests. The simultaneous increase in both students searching for jobs and openings at Val somehow still leaves students claiming desperation for work, yet feeling as though they should not have to work in Dining Services, as though they believe that they are above handling the food that they eat. The College exists as an ecosystem of students, faculty, staff and other less immediate characters. While it exists to produce graduates leading “lives of consequence,” it is also a community in need of the collaboration and care of the students in attendance. Students are required to do very little while dining in Val, but that little — courtesy, cleanliness, an attempt to decrease wastefulness — tremendously helps the dining hall’s operations.

The steps that we take to reconnect to the sources of our food can help us to rightly relate to the communities to which we belong. Within the realm of ecology, that looks like an earnest attempt to eat responsibly and sustainably; within campus, it looks like a commitment to respecting our neighbors — students, faculty and staff — and taking up the few responsibilities that we have as members of the Amherst College biome.