The sustaining impact of Wash. U.’s Food Week

| Staff Writer

Many vegetarians and vegans choose their eating habits based on grounds of animal welfare. Documentaries like “Food, Inc.” powerfully convey the stark realities of unethical animal farming, the evidence of which is loud and painful grunting and squealing. Free range, open pasture, cage-free options of meat, dairy and eggs have expanded largely because of moral concerns.

Food sustainability, however, isn’t always at the forefront of the ethical eating conversation. That doesn’t mean that the environmental degradation from farming practices isn’t harmful, though. The global livestock industry is responsible for as much greenhouse gas emissions as the global transportation industry. That’s all the cars, trucks, trains and planes in the world.

Students create moss graffiti art at the first annual Sustainable Harvest Festival. Hosted by the Office of Sustainability, the festival showcased farmers, community vendors and student groups. Allison Hamburg | Student Life

Students create moss graffiti art at the first annual Sustainable Harvest Festival. Hosted by the Office of Sustainability, the festival showcased farmers, community vendors and student groups.

In revising our food system, we cannot look past the extreme effects of nonsustainable agriculture. Last week, Washington University’s Office of Sustainability hosted Food Week 2016: Know Your Foodprint, which highlighted these concerns and how we can address them.

The sustainable food movement finds itself in a difficult position of talking to those who have already converted to vegetarianism or veganism, as well as those who have never considered such an idea. The cause for sustainable food has the Sustainability Office toeing a line between catering to vegetarians and ostracizing meat eaters, and the reverse, leaving vegetarians and vegans without ways to improve. Green Monday, a global sustainability campaign, is one solution.

Originally started in Hong Kong, Green Monday reinterprets “No Meat Monday” to solve these issues of polarization. In taking the Green Monday pledge (which has over 1,500 signatures at Washington University), you agree to eat vegetarian or more sustainably on Mondays. At the start of the week, this action on Monday can kick start you on the right path to a greener week.

But why does eating vegetarian aid the sustainability cause? Jen Thomas, the sustainability coordinator in the Office of Sustainability, said the movement works as much to change behaviors as to educate students.

“It’s about arming people with information about relative impacts,” she explained.

To produce one 300-gram steak of beef, it takes 1,228 gallons of water. In comparison, the same amount of pork requires 380 gallons of water, and 309 gallons are required for chicken. Tofu takes only 201 gallons of water, and beans only take 142. A tomato takes 14 gallons of water.

The same results are reflected in greenhouse gas emissions, with steak producing 27 kilograms for every kilogram of steak, 12 for pork, seven for chicken and only two for tofu and beans.

Based on this data, any change, from steak to pork, from pork to chicken, or from animal products to vegan options, can help the environment. Though sustainability groups would want everyone to go meat-free, they understand that small changes can help, too.

Yet, the types of foods we eat are not the only indicators of our environmental impacts. Food transportation places a great weight on our country’s infrastructure, the necessity of which remains obvious: Take a drive out of St. Louis, and you will see miles and miles of corn and soybeans. Though you can find corn in so many derivations inside many of our processed foods, these two crops do not represent the sole ingredients in a healthy, modern diet. So, we must then ship food incredible distances from around the globe, to the detriment of the environment.

Elliott Campbell, a professor of environmental engineering at the University of California, Merced, gave a lecture as part of Food Week called “Local Food’s Large Geophysical Potential and Resource Conservation Capacity.” In so much scientific terminology and meticulous maps of the United States (with colored and accurately sized circles for every population grouping in the country), Campbell presented his most recent research findings: Since 1900, major cities have relied less and less on local food, instead turning to food shipped from far away. For so many reasons, factory farming has prevailed, and smaller farms closer to cities can’t compete. Yet, Campbell’s predictive research suggests that nearly all of the country’s largest cities could, if our food system were tailored to accommodate, subsist on food grown within 150-200 miles of the populations.

Though local-grown food may seem to us like a desirable outcome in itself, experts in the environmental field, including Campbell, know that food transportation only counts for a relatively small portion of farming’s total greenhouse gas emissions, compared to emissions from meat and dairy production. So, then why should we push local food?

Campbell had some interesting insights. He claimed that if you search “local food” in Google Images, you will find rows and rows of bountiful harvests and almost no meat. This association, Campbell realizes, can be harnessed to change peoples’ diets.

“What if there was a movement that was making brussels sprout sexy?” he asked. “Local food is a revolution right now.”

Farmers markets have never been more popular, and institutions like Wash. U.’s medical campus dining halls are beginning to buy more local produce. In our current understanding, local food means veggies, so eating more local food would mean eating less meat.

Now, there are obviously numerous arguments detractors could pose, one of the most common being the countrywide dispersal of farm labor—commonly filled with migrant labor—that local food might necessitate. To this, though, one could easily say that job creation around the country presents a positive outcome, and city farming advocates are now numerous enough to happily fill farming jobs.

More fundamental an argument, though, is the fact that our modern diets, which can include food from all over the globe, require at least national food systems. Eating only canned food and Swiss chard for the winter months of the year, of course, appeals to very few.

Yet Campbell offered a modest response to this.

“Right now, local food is a niche, a blip on the map.”

That said, he asserted that local food is one option among many that could lead to more environmentally healthy lifestyles.

“Everyone wants their bananas and coffee in the morning,” Campbell said. “But we want New York City to get more than 5 percent of its food locally.”

Even 10 percent local food, for a metropolis like New York, could mean a lot.

So how can students address these sustainability issues?

Sophomore Hannah Schanzer, a food associate with the Office of Sustainability, cited the inclusive Green Monday as an excellent first step.

“[It lets] students operate within their own lifestyles,” Schanzer said.

Students can also promote local food by signing up for a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) box, available weekly or biweekly at Wash. U.’s medical or west campuses. The boxes include veggies, eggs and other local artisan products. Each costs $20 per box for students and can even be delivered to specific apartments for $10 more. The system is practically tailored for busy undergrads—students can even put boxes on hold if they leave the city.

But students can also go to local farmer’s markets—there’s one on the Delmar Loop until November or Wash. U.’s medical campus market year-round—or to sustainable grocers like Local Harvest Grocery in Grove South or City Greens Market on Manchester Street, to name a couple.

Both of these individual efforts—of eating less meat and choosing local options—build upon institutional efforts of the Office of Sustainability, which works with dining partner Bon Appetit to buy more from local farmers.

One motif that pervaded Food Week 2016 was positivity. Panelists from local food providers on Tuesday discussed their efforts already in place to utilize more sustainable food options, while Campbell’s lecture on Wednesday centered on the “potential” of local farming in the U.S. Thursday brought cooking classes and skill shares with the Burning Kumquat, and the Harvest Festival on Friday offered free cider, acorn flour grinding, local music and moss graffiti, among other food vendors.

Any movement that seems to seek to limit food options has the potential of seeming negative. What we eat is often an intimate and real part of how we were raised, where we are from and who we are. A change in food habits can seem like a change in lifestyle. It also might seem like a change in one person’s diet is like puff of smoke in terms of creating an overall environmental impact.

One could take this approach with any movement—social or personal—yet it’s not the only option. Instead, what if we saw food sustainability as a movement of possibility and positivity, as it was reflected in Food Week? At least three times per day, we have the option to make the smallest of changes and do a little bit of good. Rather than seeing a change in diet as a daunting lifetime of restraint, you can look at it as having an infinite number of opportunities to do better.

This ideology of positivity requires that we don’t uphold a sense of dietary perfection or moral superiority over those who don’t follow. There are always ways in which we’re lacking and not doing all we can to help the world. Even if we represent paragons of dietary sustainability, what about the multitudinous other pressing social and environmental issues? The massive number of service groups at Wash. U. testifies to this fact: We can never do good in every single way.

So, this requires a kind of extreme acceptance, coupled with a gentle suggestion for change. Green Monday functions such that that one who simply cannot break from meat can switch to chicken, while a vegetarian can still go vegan for the day, producing in all efforts real environmental impacts.

As Thomas said, “If we were all [at Wash. U.] to eat veggie on campus one day per week, it would be like taking 1,000 cars off the road.”