Author: Time is ripe for Stanford Dining’s sustainability efforts

L.A. Cicero Michael Pollan

Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, spoke with Erin Gaines, left, and Eric Montell, far right, both of Stanford Dining, on March 3 in Tresidder Union about the sustainability movement in food service.

Michael Pollan, author of the 2006 bestseller The Omnivore's Dilemma, sat down with the acting head of Stanford Dining and the organization's new sustainable foods coordinator on Monday afternoon to discuss the triumphs and challenges of ingraining a higher level of environmental consciousness into eating on campus.

Over the years, Stanford Dining has taken many steps to inject the idea of environmental sustainability into its culture: supporting community-based growers, buying milk and meat locally, introducing biodegradable food containers and utensils, and even inviting local farmers and fishermen who supply Stanford to meet its students in the dining halls.

Then there are the challenges: Although well intended, programs that promote the locality or growing practices of the food have little impact when students are just rushing to fill their bellies so they can get back to studying. And half the students on residential meal plans are freshmen, meaning that the education process in dining halls has to keep starting over from year to year.

"What happens in this food service, what you're both doing, has the potential to teach as important as any lessons that are being learned on this campus—and beyond this campus," said Pollan, also a journalism professor at the University of California-Berkeley. "You're not just learning about food. You're learning about carbon footprints, you're learning about sustainability in the larger sense. You're learning about culture."

The talk was presented by the Barbara and Bowen McCoy Program in Ethics in Society, as part of a series called "The Ethics of Food and the Environment." Flanking Pollan on the panel were Eric Montell, acting executive director of Stanford Dining, and alumna Erin Gaines, who became Stanford Dining's full-time sustainable foods coordinator when she graduated last year.

Having spent the last year giving public talks, mostly on college campuses, Pollan described a trend in which universities are reforming their food service operations. He also emphasized the impact those changes can have on campus, by way of healthier and more aware students, as well as off campus.

Half of what Americans spend on food pays for food prepared outside of the home, "cooked by corporations," according to Pollan. So for all the talk about the impact of individuals changing their eating habits and "voting with their forks"—victories such as the organics movement notwithstanding—Pollan said the leverage of large institutions is where the real potential lies.

"The buying power of an institution like Stanford is enormously important," Pollan said. "The tipping point will come when institutions in a concerted way and in a significant way start voting with their dollars."

In The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, Pollan makes a compelling case for how the industrialization of the nation's food supply severed the bond between Americans and what they eat, while also keeping the environmental damage done by modern forms of food production out of sight and out of mind.

Pollan followed up the afternoon event with a talk later that evening in Kresge Auditorium, "In Defense of Food: The Omnivore's Solution." Also part of the Ethics in Society series, and co-sponsored by the Program in Human Biology, the evening talk focused on Pollan's latest book, In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto.

But for those who couldn't make it that night, the afternoon talk still offered up plenty for public consumption. Gaines shared her dream of setting up a salad bar labeled with the most local ingredients at one end and the most exotic at the other. She said, and Pollan agreed, that it could be a wonderful education tool.

"How do we show students that we are actually thinking about these things?" Gaines said. "They're going through the dining hall in five to 10 minutes."

Montell echoed the dilemma about whether Stanford Dining's chefs and staff should also be educators, especially to students who are already overburdened with class work and other activities. He referred to subtler ways of getting the message across: featuring different local foods in the dining hall every month, leaflets at freshman orientation and other steps that slip in the idea of sustainability.

Pollan begged to differ, saying that only by being adamant will a heightening of the culinary consciousness on campus be realized. "Putting good food on the table for the students, supporting the local farmers in your community, is part of the university's mission to be a good citizen of the community," Pollan said.

But perhaps the most difficult task for Stanford Dining is ensuring a steady supply of high-caliber food from multiple sources that will reliably meet its need to serve about 18,000 meals per day. Along with that are the challenges of staying within budget and carving out distribution routes to get all that food onto an intelligent, fickle and, inevitably, hungry campus community.

For students and staff, there are preferences about price and taste. Those who prefer burgers and fries or highly processed foods don't necessarily care whether beef comes from gently raised, grass-fed cattle. People must still be allowed to choose, Montell said, even if it means allowing outside vendors to sell cheaper meals that don't adhere to the same health or sustainability standards as Stanford Dining.

"What you're doing here, by elevating the importance of food, is ennobling the work of the culinary staff, as you're ennobling the work of the farmers," Pollan said. "I would imagine that makes people feel just much better about what they're doing every day. It's not a minor function performed on this campus every day, but an important one."