I love the food from the Yale Sustainable Food Project. I look forward to each week’s all-sustainable meals and get excited when I see a favorite recipe on a day’s menu. During freshman and sophomore years, I ate as much as possible in the all-sustainable Berkeley College dining hall. Nevertheless, amid the numerous puff pieces the project has accumulated in the local and national press, YSFP is worthy of some criticisms it has often escaped. It has been too easy to focus on the benefits and ignore the costs, much as it has been too easy to swallow the project’s ideology, just like one of its rich organic brownies.
The project’s success and expansion has largely been the result of its widespread popularity on campus. I charge that the project’s popularity has little to do with the sustainable nature of the food and much to do with an unfair comparison with the other offerings. The project’s survey results from its 2005 annual report (the latest available on its Web site) show that 83 percent of students find the project’s offerings to be of a higher quality than the other food in the colleges, but the other food offerings are hardly a fair comparison.
A fair comparison would be similarly prepared dishes, one with regular fresh ingredients and one with local, sustainable, organic ingredients. By raising the bar on the types of food used and the effort put into preparing meals, the project is not directly comparable with other offerings. When did you last see something like an egg sandwich with Swiss cheese, asparagus and prosciutto on the regular menu? Or ingredients like olive oil or brie or butternut squash? To compare instant mashed potatoes to freshly mashed potatoes with garlic and olive oil is ridiculous. On the other hand, while I can easily tell the difference between the “cage-free eggs,” and those eggs poured from a carton, I can hardly tell the difference between those same eggs and the normal grocery-store eggs I eat at home.
I’m not dismissing (for now) the notion that sustainable or organic food can be better than comparable fresh food, but it does cost more, and those costs are largely ignored in discussions about the project. The same 2005 report shows that the food for the project in 2005 cost 37 percent more than other dining hall food. Fortunately, students on financial aid don’t have to bear the incremental cost of programs like YSFP, but the University as a whole does.
When the costs aren’t ignored in the discussion, they’re compared to some absurd value like the total size of the University’s endowment or even its return on the endowment. The reality is that the University spends more than $1 million a year on the project, and while that may be small in relation to the rest of the budget, Yale does more important things than run dining halls. Its primary goals are education and the expansion of human knowledge. The project does little to further those goals. Considering the University’s main focus, the opportunity cost of spending $1 million on YSFP is large. Yale is much better at creating value by pursuing its central mission, and could easily add several professors or more than a few instructors, or provide financial aid for 40-plus students (assuming they receive the 2005 average package of $23,475).
Beyond the immediate costs and benefits of the program, I think many Yalies would not endorse it quite so strongly if they thought about the full implications of YSFP’s ideology. While most are quick to think that the primary focus is on organic food, the real focus is on locally grown food. The project’s Web site says, “We choose to buy from a responsible local grower who we know, before we choose to buy an anonymous organic product from far away.” Buying locally appeals to the simple idea of getting the freshest food possible, but the over-emphasis on sourcing everything locally denies the benefits of locating agriculture in more productive regions and encourages the naive idea that everyone can be better off by rejecting the global economy. We can’t just withdraw into a self-sufficient bubble.
The Luddite longing for the glory days of small farming that permeates the project’s propaganda table tents might as well call for a return to the days of hunter-gatherers. When the project presents statistics such as, “In 1890, 90 percent of Americans lived on farms [and] today, fewer than 2 percent do,” it actually presents this as a bad thing rather than evidence of a triumph over Malthusian fears. Now those other 88 percent are free to do other things, such as design computers and cure the world’s diseases. The industrialization of agriculture in the last century has allowed the average share of income spent on food to decline drastically, allowing more and more Americans to own homes, spend more on health care and have meat at three meals a day.
The YSFP’s Web site says that despite its cost, sustainable food isn’t elitist. I leave that determination for someone else, but elitist or not, sustainable food is certainly a luxury. I’m not so sure that an institution of higher education should be in the business of providing luxury goods.
Patrick Ward is a senior in Branford College. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.