On Oct. 2, 1993 — exactly nine years before launching the Yale Sustainable Food Project with an inaugural banquet in Berkeley College — Richard Levin spoke at a different inauguration: his own. “Numberless are the world’s wonders, but none more wonderful than man,” he read, quoting Sophocles. “Earth, holy and inexhaustible, is graven with shining furrows where his plows have gone year after year, the timeless labor of stallions.”
In retrospect, it is particularly appropriate that he borrowed a metaphor from agriculture.
The title of President Levin’s speech was “Beyond the Ivy Walls: Our University in the Wider World,” and I mention his words in response to Patrick Ward’s latest column, which implied that the Yale Sustainable Food Project is a costly program that our university could do without (“With all its costs, YSFP is not a sweet deal,” 9/20). “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,” Ward wrote. “Its primary goals are education and the expansion of human knowledge. The project does little to further those goals.”
Ward’s concern about cost is a valid one. As of 2005, YSFP food cost 37 percent more than standard dining hall food, a number that has dropped in recent years because of increased efficiencies, yet remains high enough to stall the project’s expansion in spite of strong support from students. His argument fails, however, when he asserts that the Sustainable Food Project is a petty comfort that lies outside Yale’s primary goal of education. At first glance, this claim is questionable at best. Upon closer inspection, it reveals itself to be downright wrong.
The claim appears questionable because education is in fact a primary goal of YSFP, although some students may not identify it as such. The YSFP table tents that Ward pooh-poohs as “propaganda” are an earnest attempt to communicate how sustainable food not only tastes better — a point upon which most students agree — but also how it supports local economies and the environment (notably through lower fossil-fuel use). Unbeknownst to many students, YSFP hosts a speaker series that brings a dozen or so leading food personalities to campus each semester. And perhaps most notably, Yale College classes such as “The Psychology, Biology, and Politics of Food,” which last fall enrolled more than 300 students, confirm that food is a popular and legitimate topic of academic inquiry.
That was the surface analysis. My bolder point — and one that I believe justifies the Sustainable Food Project’s existence in spite of its cost — is that YSFP is not simply related to education in some half-hearted, peripheral way. Instead, the project is essential to the fundamental mission of Yale College, the goal that Richard Levin articulated in his inaugural address in 1993 and in numerous speeches since.
In his inaugural address to the University, Levin reminded students that while we live at Yale, “We live also in a wider world beyond the ivy walls, a world in which we bear enormous responsibility.” It follows, he said, that “our responsibility is to educate and to lead, to shape the values of the wider world.” Since he assumed the presidency in 1993, Levin’s message has remained remarkably consistent. If you examine his speeches, you will see that nearly every significant move in University strategy made during his time at Yale, whether it is his push to improve Yale’s reputation in the natural sciences or to establish Yale’s key relationship with China, has been made with this rhetoric of global leadership in mind.
Significantly in the case of YSFP, Levin has notably applied his rhetoric of leadership to sustainability. In a much-publicized speech at a meeting of the World Economic Forum in January of this year, Levin called on independent institutions such as corporations and universities to take action now to address global warming. “We cannot wait for our governments to act, though they must act if the problem is ultimately to be solved,” he said. “By showing leadership in action, not just in words, we will make the necessary response by governments much more likely.”
Yale’s efforts in recent years to promote sustainability, highlighted by the establishment of programs such as the Office of Sustainability and the Yale Sustainable Food Project, display precisely the “leadership in action” that Levin was referring to. YSFP food may be more costly than other options, but Yale’s decision to serve grass-fed beef and local tomatoes is exactly the kind of leadership, albeit on a small scale, that Yale’s students have been charged with carrying on. As President Levin concluded his inaugural speech: “Let us resume our ‘timeless labor.’ Let us leave ‘shining furrows’ behind.”
Daniel Fromson is a junior in Calhoun College. He is Managing Editor of the Yale Daily News Magazine.