Panel discusses science of Yale food

Between Sunday brunches in the dining halls and late-night Gourmet Heaven runs, food is almost always on Yalies’ minds.

“Food at Yale,” a panel discussion in Linsly-Chittenden Hall on Wednesday evening, covered topics ranging from food’s origins in the soil to the salad that ends up in Commons. Representatives of Dining Services, the Yale Sustainable Food Project, the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, and Old Maid’s Farm answered questions on a variety of food- and sustainability-related issues.

Members of Yale Dining Services, the Yale Sustainable Food Project and other organizations speak to students at a panel discussion about “Food at Yale” on Wednesday.
Blair Benham-Pyle
Members of Yale Dining Services, the Yale Sustainable Food Project and other organizations speak to students at a panel discussion about “Food at Yale” on Wednesday.

After a brief introduction of the panelists, Sarah Novak, a postdoctoral research associate, described the results of her work on food. She explained how food has become a cultural obsession, with commercials and advertisements showcasing the obesity epidemic and promoting weight loss. Nationwide, Novak said, half of college students struggle to lose weight.

“The Freshman 15 is more like five to seven,” Novak said. “But eating habits stay long-term — there’s the Sophomore Five, Junior Three and Senior Three.”

According to Novak, college students, who are often presumed to be fixed in their diets, have been neglected by the great “food movement” that has taken place in elementary schools to instill healthy eating habits from an early age.

But the pilot program initiated in Berkeley College in 2003 — which offered Berkeley students organic food as part of the Yale Sustainable Food Project — may have proved otherwise. The use of sustainable food in the Berkeley dining hall revealed surprising associations with academic behavior, Novak said.

Although there were no major differences between the GPAs of Berkeley students and those of students in other colleges, Berkeleyites were more punctual for classes and deadlines, and they slept less in class than students in other residential colleges, Novak said. She suggested that students eating YSFP meals may have received certain psychological benefits from the healthier, sustainable food.

“It is easier to offer students the good alternatives then to take away the bad alternatives,” Novak said.

Josh Viertel, the co-director of the YSFP, discussed how sustainable food, unlike other environmentally friendly initiatives, appeals to people not otherwise interested in environmental issues. Simply put, sustainable food tastes good, Viertel said, so people are motivated to make sound environmental decisions.

“In fact, the restaurants that are consistently the best restaurants in the country are all working really closely with organic growers,” Viertel said.

The high cost of organic foods is often cited as a negative aspect of the organic movement. George Purtill of Old Maid’s Farm said the high cost of organic foods was due to the very nature of sustainable farming. Along with a shorter growing season, farmers like Purtill are susceptible to natural pests.

“Our biggest competitor is weeds,” he said.

The cost of controlling weeds and hiring manual laborers contributes to the overall higher cost of production for organic foods, though these costs are somewhat offset because organic farmers do not use expensive chemicals and pesticides, Purtrill said.

Viertel said the increased cost of organic foods is counterbalanced by the high cost of health care needed to treat diseases related to bad diets.

“[Organic food is] always going to be more expensive,” Viertel said. “And it should be expensive.”

The addition of sustainable food at Yale has also fostered better relationships among the dining staff, panelists said. According to Bruce Calvert, director of Residential Operations for Dining Services, the dining staff spends a large number of hours training its workers, including visits to food producers. During this time, the Dining Services workers build personal relationships with one another, develop new creative recipes and witness the entire culinary process.

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