What’s for Dinner?

Europeans don’t do half the precious culinary things that upscale marketers tell us they do, but they do mostly sit down with friends or family in the middle of the day for a substantial meal. That culture is vanishing in the United States, both the sitting-down part and the substantial part. Journalist Michael Pollan estimates that 20 percent of all American meals are eaten in a car. All fast food can be eaten with one hand.

There are plenty of people at Stanford, starting with the staff at Stanford Dining, who are out to make sure that the culture of food is revived. (It’s worth pointing out that there also are people in Europe trying to ensure that their culture survives.)

It is a task that requires policy expertise, advocacy skills and the ability to calculate carbon footprints. It requires psychologists to figure out why people eat stuff that’s bad for them, advertising executives to make sure they do, and economists and agronomists to figure out how to transform cheap potatoes into expensive potato chips. It requires geniuses like the person who, in the midst of cholesterol panic, devised the slogan “Eggs: Nature’s Miracle Food,” or like the people who have convinced us that eating is complicated and that some food is bad for us.

If it’s bad for us, it’s probably not food. And there is no one nutrient that will help us do anything or prevent us from doing something else. It’s all of them working together. It’s the fiber and the cholesterol and the calories and the omega-3 and the vitamins and the colors.

Erin Gaines

Stanford graduate Erin Gaines, the sustainable food coordinator for Stanford Dining, spoke at a panel with journalist Michael Pollan.
Photo: L.A. Cicero

Thinking globally and working locally, Stanford students several years ago began mobilizing to make the university accountable for the 18,000 meals served to students every day. Maybe pestering is the word.
“I started by asking everyone, ‘How come it’s winter and we’re serving tomatoes?’” remembered Erin Gaines, chief among the food advocates on campus. A Phi Beta Kappa 2007 graduate of the Earth Systems program, Gaines has worked and taught at the Stanford Community Farm, managed the dining hall gardens, organized the creation of the Sustainable Choices Guide and created the full-time job of sustainable foods coordinator for Stanford Dining, which from the start has worked with the student activists.

That entrepreneurial spirit differentiates today’s interest in growing food with the back-to-the-land movement of the 1960s. This is not a cultural movement or a withdrawal; it’s a dead serious movement to save us and the planet. And it differs from the previous movement in that, today, there is big money behind organics and sustainability.

Had Earth Systems not existed, Gaines said, she probably would not have come to Stanford at all. It was the perfect program for someone who wanted to link economics and environmentalism. Like so many other Stanford students, she began with World Food Economy, taught by Rosamond Naylor and Walter Falcon, directors of the Food Security and Environment (FSE) program. Now, as an Earth Systems co-term (though she’s on leave), Gaines and her colleague Anna Lee have drawn up a list of around 30 classes that directly or peripherally relate to food studies.

“Lots of people are interested, but people don’t realize they can study food,” Gaines said. For example, Lee and Earth Systems junior John Mulrow took a class on the environmental history of the San Francisco Bay Area; for her final paper Lee wrote about land use and food, and Mulrow wrote about waste management. Both essentially have found themselves diving into environmental economics.

Dreaming of a salad bar

At a time when students mobilize around such issues as AIDS or genocide, food has not had an easy time competing because the linkages and costs are not as evident, said Gaines, Lee and Mulrow.
“In Earth Systems, we really study how to educate people,” Mulrow said. “If we had a furrow of water connecting all our houses, everyone would be conscious of what they do to the water. Water gets to our houses, but we don’t know how. We can expose that process to people.”

How does water or food get from here to there? From Chile to Stanford?
“In the past five years, the general awareness around food has been raised so much on campus,” Gaines said one day in March when she was on a panel with famed food journalist Pollan. “I have a dream of a salad bar with all the items organized by locality, with the most local ones on one end and the most exotic on the other. It would be hard to implement, though.”

Not everyone thinks that calculating food miles is the best way of going about deciding what to eat. What if lamb is raised in a more humane and ecological fashion in New Zealand than in the Midwest? What if the Bangladeshi rice farmer needs our money far more than the rice plantation owner in California? And if something is out of season here but in season in Mexico, should we import it?

The cost-benefit analysis Stanford Dining must do has been a creative one, allowing the university to forge partnerships with local, sustainable food and livestock operations while remaining within budget and ensuring that students get tasty food. (Eric Montell, executive director of Stanford Dining, recalled the case of a local farm that supplied just cabbage and kale; “try diversifying,” he suggested hopefully, anticipating the rush to McDonald’s if that’s all students saw on their plate.)

Those creative partnerships with local growers do not necessarily have to result in higher prices. But if they do, Gaines said, what about alternative distribution methods? What about subsidizing foods other than soy and corn? What about experimenting with the supply chain?

Thus food activists must act like economists to figure out how, if we pay what food actually costs (that is, if we eliminate or decrease commodity price supports and corporate welfare), how poor people will eat, given farmers’ very small margin. These are the same economic forces being considered by researchers at FSE who are looking at what happens to land and crop prices during the current corn boom.

Obesity and pollution are bad for business, food conglomerates have learned, and slowly they are becoming accountable to picky eaters who care about the planet.

“I collect corporate social responsibility reports,” said New York University nutritionist Marion Nestle during her appearance at Stanford for the “Ethics of Food and the Environment” series. “I love them. They’re so cynical; they make for wonderful reading.”

Sustainability in the frat house

So thinking globally while eating and acting locally requires that Stanford students and Stanford Dining consider agriculture, economics, transportation, behavior and social organizations.

Mulrow is especially interested in the byproducts of food: waste, recycling, re-using, reducing. He and his colleagues at refusepact.org figure the Stanford campus generates 1.5 tons of garbage a week just from beverage containers, and, with support from the Woods Institute, they are working to get students to pledge not to use disposable water bottles. His fraternity, Sigma Nu, recently elected a sustainability chair (Mulrow himself) and is slowly getting on board.

“It’s weird to have a fraternity all psyched about this,” he admits, but, hey, that’s what social movements are all about. There’s room for improvement though, he noted, as he told Gaines and Lee about being served crab legs and veal in a Row house. “And they have shrimp every night!

When Nestle spoke to a morning gathering of Stanford food lovers and experts, one of her co-panelists was Christopher Gardner, an associate professor (research) of medicine and director of nutrition studies at the Stanford Prevention Research Center.

“Something is really resonating with this topic and this series,” he observed after Nestle had said the latest edition of one of her books has a new chapter on food as a social movement. Somehow, these ideas, long held by just a small minority, are taking off.

“Like mixed salad greens,” he noted. “How are they suddenly everywhere? How did soy get marketed? How do ideas get socially marketed?”

And speaking of marketing: Students committed to sustainable living and dining are operating a produce cart every Friday afternoon at Tresidder Union. They are selling goods grown by ALBA, the Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association, which helps aspiring organic farmers in Monterey County.