Marguerite Preston is a Junior at Brown studying Nonfiction Writing. She’s from Hopewell, NJ, but during the school year she lives, cooks and eats at West House, Brown’s environmental program house. This post is the first in what we hope we’ll be a terrific series on developing a local foods alternative on University campuses. Of all the great things that come to mind when you think of college, I’m willing to bet food is not one of them. I can’t think of a single one of my peers who actually enjoys the food on meal plan. Dining hall food is just one of those things at college you have to tolerate, like Econ 101 lectures and term papers. Of course, for most people the biggest problem with college food is simply the taste, or lack thereof. Mushy baked pasta, sodden overcooked vegetables, oily stir-fries, tough meat—it’s hard to find anything appealing in a school’s lunch or dinner repertoire. Even if you choose to forgo the hot food and make yourself a salad or a sandwich, the salad bar leaves much to be desired: the lettuce is watery and bland, the toppings are limited to wilting vegetables and canned goods, and the sliced meats and cheeses are pale and limp. If you decide on an omelet at the omelet bar, they’ll make it for you fresh, but the eggs they use get poured from a carton rather than cracked from a shell. So obviously the quality is reason enough to complain about college food. But there are other issues at stake as well, issues of ethics and sustainability. As a freshman on meal plan at Brown, these were the issues I increasingly found myself both aware of and concerned by. Pretty much any school cafeteria you go to is the same: they need to feed a large number of people as cheaply and easily as possible, so they buy food that is produced in large quantities as cheaply and easily as possible. This means industrial food: industrially grown, industrially processed and industrially shipped. Needless to say, none of these are sustainable practices. Nor do they often result in food that is either healthy or tasty. My Life as a Freshman There I was my freshman year, faced with either eating what I have described above or eating out. But I’d grown up picking vegetables from our local CSA and from my mom’s extensive garden. I’d grown up eating good food that my parents cooked from scratch almost every night and knew how important these routines and practices were. In high school, several very good teachers of mine had gotten me thinking even more seriously about the importance of knowing where my food came from and of trying a much as possible to get food that was local, sustainable, organic and healthy. They’d introduced me to the work of people like Michael Pollan and Carlo Petrini and I’d devoured the information. I even became a vegetarian, partially for ethical reasons, but also because we’d spent time in Biology class talking about the inefficiency of eating meat compared to vegetables. The school dining hall was antithetical to my set of values, and as the year progressed I felt more strongly that it was not a food system I wanted to participate in.
Luckily, I was not alone.
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