Sustainable food confronts elitist past

BERKELEY, Calif. — The lush, creamy flesh of the date melts on the tongue, pairing perfectly with the locally grown tangerine’s fresh, almost fanciful flavor. Served by themselves with the leaves and stems still attached to the citrus, delicate tastes marry with remarkable textures to leave the restaurant-goer in a state of ecstasy.

In other words: “Churchill-Brenneis Orchard Kishu tangerines and Flying Disc Ranch Barhi dates, $7.50.”

Dinner at the Berkeley, Calif.-based Chez Panisse is more than just a rhapsodic gourmet experience. It is also a pricey — if seductive — education in sustainable food from the grand dame of local, “real” food and the Yale Sustainable Food Project’s inspiration: Alice Waters.

The next day, over fresh mint tea, Waters asked about the tangerines.

“Were they not beautiful?” she said. “When you have that and you taste that, then you want to come back again. You want to know where that came from. It’s bringing you back to a seasonal way of thinking. Fruit is just the perfect way of doing that.”

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For better or worse, the poetic, idealistic Waters and her much-hallowed restaurant have become the epitome of the recent trend in food culture calling for a return to natural, local ingredients and seasonal cooking. On the collegiate front, the Waters-inspired YSFP has similarly emerged as a forerunner in the new sustainable food trend on college campuses across the country.

In 2001, Waters joined with University President Richard Levin, students and faculty to create a program focused on food, agriculture and sustainability. Just seven years later, most Yalies come into contact with the sustainable food movement working on the student farm, in dining halls stocked with local, organically grown produce or — perhaps most controversially — in the new, all-sustainable Thain Family Café in the just-renovated Bass Library.

At anywhere between $28 to $80 per person for dinner, Chez Panisse offers a range of dinner prices comparable to that of other gourmet restaurants. Thanks to a subsidy from the University that covers the additional cost of sustainable ingredients — which usually cost around 20 percent more — the Thain Family Café’s prices are competitive with other New Haven coffee shops.

But it’s still more than many students are willing to fork over for study food: If you can buy a slice of pizza for $2, why buy a fancy hummus sandwich that costs $6?

That question is at the heart of much of the resistance facing the sustainable food movement, both on campus and across the nation. Sustainable ingredients are more expensive than those that are conventionally produced, and sustainable dishes are often frilly or gourmet. These trends have given sustainable food the reputation of being inaccessible and elitist.

Laura Hess ’06 — one of the students who drafted the proposal for the student-run Yale Farm in 2003, who now works for the YSFP — explained, “That’s an accusation that you hear levied all over the place.”

But, she was quick to add, “It’s not an accusation that holds a lot of water.”

In reality, the sustainable food movement is no longer limited to gourmands — like Waters — who rhapsodize about dates and tangerines. And while the sometimes prohibitive costs are, at least for now, difficult to deny, the movement’s proponents generally agree that it is more efficient in the long run for a society to follow tenets of sustainable-food production.

“It will cost more in terms of everyday dollars and it will cost much less in terms of long-term impact,” YSFP Director Melina Shannon-DiPietro said in an interview.

A surge of student interest in the social justice and environmental aspects of the movement — the long term targets of sustainability — is powering a shift in focus from the sensual eating experience to a more diverse set of ways to engage with the food movement.

Michael Pollan, professor at the University of California, Berkeley and author of “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto” and “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” pointed to his own experience.

“I’ve been speaking on campuses across the country and everywhere I go, students are deeply engaged in the movement to reform the system,” he wrote in an e-mail. “And many of them are beginning on their own campuses.”

Back in New Haven, the YSFP is shaping itself in response to this new generation of students who are changing the way sustainable food is perceived, overcoming some barriers imposed by its gourmet past and developing new strategies for its future.

‘Guided by principles of sustainability’

The fine print at the bottom of the paper menu at Chez Panisse reads, “All our produce, meat, poultry, and fish come from farms, ranches, and fisheries guided by principles of sustainability.”

These “sustainable” ingredients are delectable, to say the least — fresh artichokes with paper-thin cured ham and creamy avocado alongside pink beets. But what, exactly, are “principles of sustainability”?

The definition of sustainability for Chez Panisse parallels that of the YSFP: Sustainable practices meet the need of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

According to Dave Thier ’09, a student farm manager and a staff reporter for the News, “Something is sustainable if it does not degrade the resources upon which it depends. With regards to agriculture, this means fertility is returned to the soil, that fertilizers and pesticides made from fossil fuel are not used, and that the food doesn’t travel farther than it has to.”

But if sustainable food is simply about not degrading natural resources, how has it managed to gain the reputation of being as an elitist, fancy food movement? The answer is rooted all the way on the west coast, in Berkeley, and in the people who began what Waters has come to call a “delicious revolution.”

Pagnol et Yale

It was 1970 in Berkeley, California — with all that implies — and Waters wanted to start a restaurant where she could recreate the cuisine she had fallen in love with during trips to Italy and France. Chez Panisse opened its doors the following year, serving a fixed, three-course menu to the Berkeley foodie community. During a turbulent first decade rife with fiscal troubles and staffing drama, Waters began to focus on buying fresh ingredients locally. She had been trying to recreate Italian and French cuisines, she explained, but that simply wasn’t possible with the ingredients available in California.

So began her interest in local, seasonal food and the possibilities created by sustainable agriculture.

This was during a time when the fanciest French restaurants were using frozen meats and the term “organic” was not even near America’s cultural radar. Agricultural schools across the country were also creating foods that could be packaged more easily and produced more cheaply.

History professor Paul Freedman, who is teaching the course “The History of Food and Cuisine in Europe and North America” this semester, recalled when in the ’70s, the University of California, Davis developed tomatoes that were more square than round in order to facilitate packing. He said they had posters debunking the “myth” that these tomatoes tasted any less flavorful than their original, rounder counterparts.

In this case, at least, the “myth” was apparently true. According to Freedman, hybridized foods bred for durability are not as good as the original with regards to taste, or nutrition. But he said the idea that these cheaper alternatives are just as good has been a pervasive belief in American culture, and only in the past 10 to 15 years has the tiny, elite natural food phenomenon become somewhat of a mass movement.

During the ’90s, when organic food was beginning to reach the mainstream, Waters aligned herself with the Italy-based Slow Food organization and shifted her focus to educating Americans about their food.

She intersected with Yale at a particularly serendipitous moment.

Students had begun asking the University for organic food in the dining halls in 2000, explained YSFP director and founder Joshua Viertel. These requests led to conversations about the creation of an initiative that would focus on food, sustainablity and agriculture.

Waters presented a similar program to the University when her daughter Fanny Singer ’05 moved to the Elm City, according to Gordon Jenkins ’07, who worked for YSFP and now works for Slow Food and in Waters’ office. Viertel was hired in 2002 to help create a cohesive vision for the program, and subsequently collaborated with students on the establishment of the Yale Farm in 2003. But it was students that called for the creation of the YSFP, not Waters or the University administration, Jenkins said.

“She certainly didn’t start the sustainable food project,” he said. “But she was, in some ways, its patron saint, because she helped convince President Levin to start funding it.”

Even though the YSFP is only six years old, it has already become part of the Yale institution and earned a reputation. Part of it stems from Waters’ — and by extension YSFP’s — gourmet history.

After all, Chez Panisse menu items include herb jam with flatbread, lardons and chervil. Strangely enough, YSFP dishes also have a distinctly gourmet ring: “Leek and Potato Galette,” “Grilled Chicken in Spiced Yogurt and Mint” and “Olney’s Squash Gratin.”

Jenkins described a common response to the YSFP during his time on campus: “There’s a reaction to it being fancy food at a fancy university.”

But Hess said YSFP’s menu items followed a Western gourmet aesthetic simply because of Viertel’s and Shannon-DiPietro’s culinary backgrounds. Shannon-DiPietro also pointed out that some of the chefs came out of Waters’ office and carried her influence into their menus.

But Waters herself is not a proponent of fancy foods, or at least not for the everyday. Her most recent book is entitled “The Art of Simple Food” and its recipes are rather ordinary: pancakes, pasta and simple desserts. Speaking to a sous-chef in her office before her interview with the News, she stressed the importance of simplicity in creating the hors-d’oeuvres for an upcoming event.

Jenkins said much of the elitist perceptions around the nature of sustainable food result from bad marketing.

“People involved in the food movement, and Alice in particular, have done a very poor job of presenting themselves,” he said.

Because food is so personally and intimately intertwined with daily life, emotional controversy often arises when a nation is lectured on what it should and should not eat. Just as in a good meal, taste is only a fraction of the sustainable food movement — the rest is its presentation.

‘How do you insult years of tradition?’

It’s 8:30 am on a Wednesday morning and a few students are rushing to make it across the basketball courts before the final bell. It’s much like any other middle school in California, except that the backpack-clad children wander around rows of little plants before they make it to the playground.

In 1994, Waters began the Edible Schoolyard Program at the Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Berkeley with a focus on educating children about their food and where it comes from. Students work in the garden, cook the harvested produce and finally eat their creations. The racially-diverse campus serves some of the populations hardest hit by the modern obesity epidemic; according to Shannon-DiPietro, it is primarily communities of color and those of lower socioeconomic class that are hurt by the current American system of food subsidized by the government.

Marsha Guerrero, director special projects at the Chez Panisse Foundation, serves as the program coordinator for Edible Schoolyard. She said there is usually initial resistance to the food they cook in the classroom, but students gradually turn toward eating the fresh produce they have grown. Still, parents are often “offended” when their children come home and ask to buy ingredients that they cannot afford or to go to farmers’ markets that are inaccessible, she said.

Various traditional cuisines aside, generic-American mass food culture has become one of Hostess, Lean Cuisine and leftover Chinese takeout, which does not really compare to Chez Panisse’s $18.00 pizza with radicchio and Roquefort or YSFP’s Pappardelle with Sausage, Mozzarella and Sauce. And, unfortunately for YSFP, proponents of sustainable food have done little to alleviate that perception of gourmet elitism in the past. Jenkins explained that Slow Food — an international organization that supports “good, clean and fair food” — and other proponents of sustainable food have often used problematic moralizing rhetoric.

“It’s been presented from a moral high ground saying, ‘Hey, hoi polloi! This is what you should be eating,’ ” he explained.

Even as the “Philosophy of Alice Waters” looms over the garden like the Ten Commandments — painted on a signboard attached to the side of the classroom — the Edible Schoolyard program actively works to counteract a moralizing perception. Because family and tradition often play a big role in food choices, Guerrero said telling students that their grandmother’s recipes are somehow lesser is not only inaccurate, it’s damaging to the educational process.

“We don’t tell kids that what they’re eating is wrong,” she said. “How do you insult years of tradition?”

At the same time, the Edible Schoolyard tries to instill a set of values about quality ingredients in its students, just as the YSFP aims to educate Yalies. Jenkins recalled that many students react negatively when morals are brought into their education, especially outside the classroom. He said this may contribute to some students’ negative perception of the YSFP.

But Viertel said he believes the University cannot avoid teaching about food; they instruct simply by purchasing ingredients and serving them in its dining halls.

“The problem is you can’t opt out of teaching values, especially when it comes to food,” he said.

But these values are often shrouded in various forms of packaging. Students encounter sustainable food through the dishes made in the dining hall and when they resemble Chez Panisse more than Hot Pockets, it’s difficult to separate the message of ingredients from the message of the recipe.

Back at the Edible Schoolyard, Guerrero said she focuses on just presenting fruits and vegetables as viable foods, taking inspiration from Pollan’s message of small but important steps.

“We’ve got to start somewhere,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be organic, just being able to work with fresh vegetables is a start.”

As Guerrero walked back to the garden from the playground, she ran into a few graduates — now ninth graders — waiting outside the classroom. They had come by the garden on their way to Berkeley High School and wanted to drop in and say hello. Discussing the garden’s progress, Guerrero took them into the kitchen and gave them each a Kishu tangerine.

‘It’s not like we’re some fortress’

In the flurry of attention aroused by the replacement of Machine City — home of pre-packaged sandwiches and Red Bull — with the Thain Family Café, the YSFP has begun to shift its programming to address the continuing issue of accessibility that the Edible Schoolyard has been grappling with for over a decade. Shannon-DiPietro said the question of the hour is: “How do we make sustainable food not elitist anymore, how do we make it understandable that this is of the people, for the people?”

For Thier, the answer involves moving beyond the “Alice Waters paradigm” and devising a way to make the current model of sustainable food work on an international level.

“Her gourmet model was essential to starting this movement and getting certain people excited, but it’s not what’s important now,” he said. “We have to figure out how to make this work on a global scale, and we have to figure out how to make it affordable. We haven’t done that yet.”

Austin Shiner ’11, who trained as a chef during high school and now writes the Yale Herald’s “Culinary Conundrum” column, also said the Waters form of food activism is out of date and needs revision to work on a significant scale.

“The only viable solution is to establish organic farming on a massive scale with a jump-start investment by affluent environmentalists such as Al Gore or Sir Richard Branson,” he said. “Farms would have to make little profit at first, but once the price goes down organic produce will be competitive with conventional and proceeds will skyrocket.”

Hess said the YSFP is looking to respond to student interest with regard to its programming — the shift this semester toward events concerning broader social issues like last Thursday’s Sustainable Society teach-in came out of discussions about social justice and how it relates to sustainable food.

The YSFP will also be revising its menu items with an eye toward including items that students are more accustomed to and not “scary and gourmet,” Hess said.

“It’s not like we’re some fortress that makes our decisions behind close doors,” she said.

Shannon-DiPietro and Waters also both emphasized how simple beginning to eat sustainably can be. It is not necessary to completely stop eating anything that has been processed or traveled farther than 30 miles to start changing your eating habits for the better, she said.

“I’m never going to subsist on parsnips and potatoes, and no one is; that’s not what it takes to dramatically change our impact on the world,” Shannon-DiPietro said. “Shifting our purchasing habits a little bit is what it’s going to take.”

And what would Waters say to the Yale student wondering how they are going to manage to eat sustainable food outside the dining hall?

“This is not difficult,” she said. “This is delicious. This is easy.”

The revolution will be edible

Waters and the YSFP are not alone in their efforts to promote sustainable food on college campuses. Students interviewed at Boston University, Brown, University of California at Berkeley, Cornell, University of New Hampshire and Harvard all cited an increase interest in sustainable food on campus over the past five years, although each community has responded with a different set of programs.

Recent efforts like last fall’s Real Food Summit have focused on bringing these scattered projects together in order to build regional and national support networks and create an awareness of individual efforts as part of a larger movement. The Real Food Challenge, which will launch this coming fall, will focus on a week of sustainable food activism on 300 campus around the country. Slow Food on Campus, the collegiate arm of Slow Food, was created in August 2007 and has begun registering campus convivia, the convivium being the local unit of Slow Food. The Yale undergraduate organization Food From The Earth became a Slow Food convivium last fall.

While each university has its own set of programs, most of them have run into similar criticisms of sustainable food being inaccessible or impossible to execute on their campuses. As one of the first successful initiatives, Yale has served as a model for other universities, explained David Schwartz, a junior at Brown and one of the coordinators of last year’s Real Food Summit and the upcoming Real Food Challenge.

Student interest at Brown was galvanized four years ago with the creation of its Sustainable Food Initiative. When Brown’s dining services said that 10 percent sustainable food in the dining halls would be the only feasible option, he cited the YSFP’s success in shifting to 40 percent local and sustainable dining-hall food.

Students are also beginning to focus on affecting change through larger policy shifts in the American food system. Cormac Griffin, a senior at the University of New Hampshire and UNH Organic Garden Club President, said he anticipates this generation of students creating the food policy of the future.

“I often get frustrated with my peers who feel the ecological doomsday is fast approaching,” he said. “Although we have some serious environmental issues to deal with, our generation will be the ones making policy decisions.”

This generation will also be responsible for initiating a cultural shift in how much Americans are willing to pay for food. As Shannon-DiPietro said, sustainable food does cost more than what Americans are currently accustomed to spending. But processed foods made with corn or soybeans are usually heavily subsidized by the government, she said; Americans don’t pay out of pocket for the actual economic impact of the food they eat.

The complex farm subsidy system and the way it affects what every American eats need to be examined and revolutionized, Thier said.

“This is about building a new food system,” he said. “Just because sustainable food seems inaccessible to large portions of the population now isn’t a reason to give up, it’s a reason to try harder.”

Between increased activism on policy issues and simple lifestyle shifts evidenced by the growing popularity of farmer’s markets, the idea of sustainable food has begun to root itself in a certain part of American culture. It’s even made its way into the lexicon: “Localvore” was the Oxford American Dictionary’s Word of the Year for 2007.

Although sustainable food has yet to prove that it can sustain itself, the popularity of the idea behind the movement suggests that agricultural schools probably won’t be developing “foods of the future” like triangle tomato-pills any time soon.

“I think it will have staying power — it may change its aspects and name,” Freedman added. “A corner has been turned against the food industry’s ability to convince people that Pringles and cola are the wave of the future.”

‘Something very straightforward and very simple’

Last night in New Haven, YSFP co-sponsored “A Taste of Home: an African/West-Indian Dinner” with the Yale African Student Association and the Yale West Indian Student Organization. Over 50 students filled the Afro-American Cultural Center to feast on jerk chicken, ugali, jollof rice, plantains and other specialties made by student volunteers earlier in the afternoon. After the trays had been emptied, Hess said she did not know if the ingredients were produced sustainably. The YSFP decided to co-sponsor and publicize the event because it wanted to encourage engaging with food through culture because agriculture, food and culture are all intertwined, she said.

Even if the ingredients weren’t produced according to “principles of sustainability,” the food was hearty, spicy and brought together Yalies from all different spheres of campus life to eat a meal together. To echo Pollan and Guerrero: It’s got to start somewhere.

And last month in Berkeley, after discussing the progression of sustainable food in America movement on a rainy Tuesday afternoon in her office next to Chez Panisse, Waters expressed her feelings — and her legacy.

“This restaurant has been doing something very straightforward and very simple with determination and discrimination for a long time,” she said, tears gathering at the back of her eyes. “A lot of people have been influenced by that.”

Comments

  • Townie

    Agriculture at Yale? Hah. Give me a break. At Cornell, we grow the Ivy. Seriously, land-grant schools are much better at this stuff.

  • Roxanne Christensen

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  • student