One cannot escape a Yale dining hall without noticing the organic, sustainable and healthy food that’s offered at every meal. Not only do “chicks dig it,” but the new menu is tasty, it’s good for the environment and it’s become a new selling point for the Yale admissions office. A win-win for everyone, right? Maybe not.
Amid all the hype, our educational eating experience has missed a key distinction. Organic food, sustainable food and healthy food are not always one in the same. While an organic and sustainable diet can work at elite institutions such as Yale, it is far from a panacea for our ever-growing obesity pandemic.
First, organic foods aren’t inherently healthy. The major advertised benefit — that organic foods picked at the peak of freshness are bursting with micronutrients — is supported by little empirical evidence and has little effect on an individual’s overall health.
Meanwhile, with regard to the major health challenge of today — an overabundance of macronutrients, such as fats and calories — organic foods offer little relief. The organic brownies we ate yesterday during lunch, for example, don’t have fewer calories than the non-organic variety. Yet the average Yale diner may have failed to notice this fact, since the Yale Sustainable Food Project explicitly chooses not to post the nutritional values with its food.
Still, proponents of organic food insist that the reduced use of pesticides helps promote another important public health aspect — food safety. Even this claim, however, has been thrown into doubt. The recent E. coli outbreak traced to the largest producer of organic spinach, Natural Selection Foods, has resulted in a massive recall of both organic and regular spinach.
While organic food’s health benefits remain uncertain, one fact is clear — organic foods are significantly more expensive than non-organic foods. At a time when obesity predominately affects the poor who cannot afford regular fruits and vegetables, insisting on an all-organic diet is at best elitist and at worst detrimental to the public’s health.
Sustainable food, on the other hand, is not inherently organic, and it may avoid some of the elitist stigma of organic food. Preferring locally grown products to the mass-produced organic options shipped from far away and now sold at Wal-Mart, sustainable food advocates focus on promoting the local community and protecting the environment. While Yale spends millions of extra dollars on its sustainable food, sustainable food in general has become more accessible to low-income residents through WIC and food stamps, which are accepted at farmers markets.
The ability of farmers markets and sustainable food to solve food-access issues, however, is ironically not too sustainable. While local food may be more accessible and slightly cheaper at the peak of the season, our perennially cold New England winter can quickly decrease the supply and increase the price of local produce.
What we read most often from the YSFP is that sustainable food helps us develop a connection with what we’re eating and then somehow magically encourages us to eat a healthier diet. While I enjoy the almost literary quality of their promotional materials, I’m not convinced, and I have yet to see a peer-reviewed scientific study that suggests that “playing with our food” makes any significant difference in the deadly obesity epidemic.
Good-tasting and generally healthy YSFP menu options certainly offer some help, but how much of the new taste is really a result of the food itself versus the recipes and preparation? An overcooked pizza tastes the same to me whether its ingredients are sustainable or not.
In sum, as “sustainable” and “organic” have become the newest catchwords for today’s most popular food, the one descriptor that seems left behind is “healthy.” It may be the least sexy of the three, but for more than 1 billion overweight individuals across the globe, healthy eating can be a matter of life or death.
We know today more than ever before that the obesity epidemic is real, and that it is having a devastating impact on the poor and disadvantaged in our community and around the world. The choice to act is now ours. We can enjoy the fancy, feel-good food in our dining halls, or we can look beyond the fads to find some real solutions to one of the most pressing challenges of our generation.
Robert Nelb is a junior in Timothy Dwight College.