“The future served up on a plate” sounds like it belongs on the label of an astronaut’s dinner. You start to imagine all the freaky genetically engineered creations scientists are planning to come up with: apples shrunk to bite-size morsels, spicy grapes, pink cucumbers. Or maybe you’re thinking of how innovative chefs might present your food to you in bold new ways, layering ingredients one on top of another to build skyscrapers.
In reality, “the future served up on a plate” involves no chemical trickery or avant-garde technique. Rather, it means a return to traditional dietary staples. Journalist Dale Berning Sawa uses the phrase to introduce a weeklong diet she put together for The Guardian in January 2019.
Sawa’s plant-heavy diet, which includes dishes like lentil soup, butternut squash curry and spinach lasagna, is based on an exhaustive report on healthy diets from sustainable food systems titled “Food in the Anthropocene” — the result of a joint effort between the British journal The Lancet and a Norwegian think tank named EAT. Authored by 18 researchers from 16 countries, the EAT-Lancet report calls for a “global food transformation” aimed at reining in the excesses of the modern Western diet and feeding the world’s population, which is expected to hit 10 billion by the year 2050.
My family agreed to follow Sawa’s diet with me over spring break, as long as I promised to do the cooking. Sawa provides an example week of breakfasts, lunches and dinners which roughly fit within the recommendations prescribed by the report.
The commission’s guidelines establish what the authors call a “win-win diet,” one that’s healthy for both people and the planet. The guidelines offer “intake ranges” for broad food groups to allow different cultures to apply the standards to the ingredients that are available and appropriate to their regions and customs. Even so, making my way through the 40-page report while following Sawa’s menu, I realized that my American dietary habits were leading me astray; whenever I made sacrifices in one direction, I overstepped my limits in another, tipping my body off its healthy balance and landing with a heavy environmental footprint.
On Tuesday, I searched the web for a recipe I felt was close enough to Sawa’s dinner choice of zucchini gratin. I ended up using a French recipe that called for sauteing the onions and zucchini in a stick of melted butter, later pouring in a cup of milk and finally grating on top 150 grams of Gruyere cheese. In terms of health, dairy isn’t as much of a no-no as red meat on the EAT-Lancet diet, but, for obvious reasons, the ecological effects of the two are very much linked. In addition to the emissions associated with raising and feeding livestock, cows burp out methane — a greenhouse gas with 56 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide.
I still might have stayed within my dairy budget if I hadn’t decided to eat a breakfast of bran flakes, dried fruit and milk for the entire week. I figured if Raisin Bran was good for Wednesday morning, why not for every morning? What I eventually learned is that variety — between food groups and within them — is one of the diet’s central principles.
Getting protein from milk fats every once in a while isn’t an issue. The problem is settling back into a Western, dairy-reliant diet, neglecting food groups with more nutritional value and less environmental impact. Even the bran flakes, while a step-up from the ultrasugary refined grains found in Cap’n Crunch and Cocoa Puffs, should be approached with caution. The EAT-Lancet report’s authors write that out of over 14,000 edible plant species, just three — wheat, maize and rice — account for 60 percent of the total calories that humans consume worldwide. Our dependence on these staples has led to a dangerous feedback loop: As farmers wear out their soils growing the same crops year after year, they’re forced to shower ever more fertilizers over their fields. Excess nitrogen and phosphorus from the fertilizers can cause an explosion of algae growth in freshwater and marine ecosystems, leading to lethal oxygen-free conditions, and nitrogen, in particular, is converted by soil microbes into nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas with 280 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide. Embracing alternative options, like quinoa and millet, could help to relieve these pressures.
Scattering them throughout her menu, Sawa tosses one essential ingredient onto many meals: nuts. Sometimes, the addition was easy enough: breaking almonds into my Raisin Bran or cashews into a cucumber and tuna salad. But at other points, I felt at a loss. Surely, only an experienced chef would put a sweet squash curry at risk by adding salty peanuts, and I had three other (already skeptical) diners to feed. The EAT-Lancet report advises over twice the daily caloric intake from nuts as from all meats and fish combined. If Americans are to wean themselves off animal-source proteins, we’ll need to learn how to eat a range of plant-sourced proteins that will satisfy all our nutritional demands.
We easily forget what a rare luxury a can of Progresso soup is. With the pull of a pop tab lid, we access ingredients that people in most parts of the world work all day for. Our great American industry of convenience encourages us to eat the foods that are worst for our bodies and for the environment we live in. The EAT-Lancet report makes clear what we mostly already know, but are still afraid to admit: “The Great Food Transformation” will require a lot of effort — effort from everyone.
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You might have noticed all those leaflets propped up on the dining hall tables a few weeks ago, advertising the arrival of seasonal asparagus and peas. If you were too focused on your meal, or your classmates’ conversation, you were still probably aware of the growing stake that various kinds of asparagus — steamed, roasted, lemoned — have recently claimed of the hot food bar. (I believe the peas are yet to come out in full force.)
Buying locally grown produce counts as one dimension of Yale Hospitality’s commitment to sustainable food. Others are just as visible in the dining halls. I walk past a poster for fair-trade coffee every morning in the Saybrook kitchen area, shouting “Think Sustainability, Take Responsibility.” When I glance up at the label above almost any dish, it’s hard to miss the comforting adjectives thrown in: “free-range,” “grass-fed,” “cage-free.”
Yale’s interest in sustainable food dates back almost two decades, to a time before the phrase “sustainable food” really existed. In 2001, Fanny Singer ’05 told her mom, the world-famous chef Alice Waters, that she didn’t want to eat in the dining halls anymore. Waters decided to step in, and, with the support of the Yale administration, set up a pilot program in Berkeley College to serve only delicious, local and organic ingredients at every meal. The program, which went into effect in the fall of 2003, was an enormous success. Lines trailed out the doors, even after the dining hall was closed to students from other colleges. (Legends survive of jealous outsiders printing up fake Berkeley IDs.) Along with the Berkeley pilot, Yale broke ground to build a one-acre farm just beyond Science Hill, and set up an associated group called the Yale Sustainable Food Project. By 2004, every dining hall was offering sustainable options; within a few more years, Yale had ended its contract with the private food provider Aramark and set up its own in-house dining service, which later became Yale Hospitality.
In February, I contacted Yale Hospitality’s director of sustainability, Gerry Remer, to ask if she could send me information on who the purveyors were of the major ingredients in that night’s dinner menu of pork meatballs with cabbage, chicken wings and white bean stew. I wanted to track a meal back to the farmers and the families behind it so that I could tell the story of how a sustainable dinner is put together. Here’s where Yale’s account of its sustainable food venture began to seriously break down.
Remer emailed me back without providing names of purveyors: She only offered vague details on the ingredients (whatever mystery farm the chickens and pork come from doesn’t use antibiotics, while the cabbage is reportedly “regional”). I reached out a couple more times over spring break, but didn’t hear back. Eventually, I headed over to the Yale Hospitality office on Church Street, where a representative named Adam led me into a conference room and told me that he and his colleagues didn’t want to share the information I’d requested because it didn’t tell the full story of Yale’s sourcing practices. He warned me to be careful about what I put in print, and told me that Remer would be happy to email me some PR-ready “fun facts,” meant to make Yale’s “inconceivable” annual purchases more “relatable.” (In light of the EAT-Lancet report, most of the fun facts did a much better job terrifying me than putting me at ease: In one year, for example, “Yale dining halls serve 2,133,257 eggs.”)
Defeated in my original plan, I decided to come at Yale Hospitality from a different angle. On the organization’s “Sustainability Initiatives” webpage, I found that Yale Hospitality works within four “sustainable categories”: environmentally sensitive, regional/local, humane and fair. According to the site’s most recent data, 39 percent of food purchases met at least one of the criteria. What’s weird is that those latest figures are from the 2014–15 academic year. I asked Remer whether Yale still uses the same categories, and if so, whether she could provide any more up-to-date statistics. She only assured me that “these criteria are still part of Yale Hospitality’s core values,” leaving me to assume that the numbers have either gone down or aren’t tallied up anymore.
On another of Yale’s webpages dedicated to Sustainability, there’s included a short history of sustainable food on campus: “In 2001, Alice Waters, the renowned chef and food activist, launched a program serving only seasonal and sustainable food at Berkeley College. This has been a popular program and Yale Dining has been continually transitioning to healthier and more sustainable food in all dining halls.” I recently learned that there’s perhaps nobody who disagrees more with this statement than Waters herself.
“It’s really shameful that Yale has a reputation of a commitment that they haven’t followed up on,” Waters told me over the phone. She believes that the foundations of sustainable food at Yale collapsed in the late 2000s. “There was nothing written down as to what our mission was and what our real goals were going to be,” she said. Those involved with realizing Waters’ original plans pushed hard for Yale to drop its corporate food provider, Aramark, because the company was so tied up in the industrial food system. But when Yale set up its own internal operation (then called Yale Dining Services), the University allowed it to follow its own path and slide away from the Berkeley pilot model. In 2007, the YSFP declared its independence. The group shifted gears from working on Yale’s own food services to teaching classes and looking beyond campus at global food systems.
Yale swears on a growing commitment to sustainable food since 2001. Waters claims it dropped the ball over a decade ago. After all the runaround Yale Hospitality had given me, I was ready to believe its sustainability pledges were a sham. I reached out to a few of the YSFP team members, hoping they might show me the lay of the land from right next door. At first, they too were reluctant to talk, referring me back to Yale Hospitality. I explained just how confused I was by all the contradictions I’d come up against, and eventually Mark Bomford, the program’s director since 2012, agreed to talk with me over the phone.
“There has been no change in the vision, there’s no change in the kind of world that we believe is possible, that we hope to see, but I think that there’s been a big change in the approach,” he told me. “Yale Hospitality is trying to keep on top of the emerging scientific understanding, to keep on top of what’s accepted by the scientific community as being the most sustainable way to go.”
Bomford explained that the floor is always moving beneath the sustainable food debate and that Yale Hospitality does well to respond by shifting its weight.
“The scientific community has said that some of these earlier signifiers — ‘organicness’ or ‘localness,’ this kind of stuff — are far less significant than the portion of food that’s plant-based, for example, or moving into whole-food diets over highly processed diets,” he said.
Instead of the updated statistics I’d requested on the four “sustainable categories,” Remer had sent me data from an entirely new set of metrics.
“Currently 85% of our residential dining meal items are plant-based, and since 2016 we have reduced our beef purchases by 13% and increased our purchases of legumes by 23%,” she wrote. You’ll notice that these changes look like just the kind of efforts that the EAT-Lancet report calls for. For several years now, a blended burger has been available at dining hall grill stations with a formula of 60% beef- and 40% shredded mushrooms. In 2017, Remer told me, Yale received an A+ on a vegan report card from PETA2, PETA’s youth division.
What I found most frustrating about dealing with the Yale Hospitality representatives was their insistence on sticking to a simple storyline. They wanted me to believe that the food in the dining halls today grew step by step from Alice Water’s earliest vision, as if it was as easy as collecting badges: “regional/local,” “humane,” “fair,” “environmentally sensitive,” “plant-based,” “vegetarian,” “vegan.”
They either weren’t aware of, or didn’t want to address, the wild inconsistencies in their communications. Below her brief response describing “regional/local” as part of Yale Hospitality’s “core values,” Remer sent me in the opposite direction answering my next question. I’d discovered online that Yale’s beef comes from Australia; I asked her how ordering from so far afield fits into Yale’s sustainability model.
“Matthew, I think you will find a lot of research related to the minimal impact of transportation vs. the impact of different methods of raising cattle,” she wrote.
And she’s right. While the EAT-Lancet commission’s authors encourage setting up small-scale food systems in touch with native ecosystems, they also stress the importance of sharing ideas, resources and even food around the planet. There’s a whole side panel of the study given to weighing the pros and cons of global free trade. Michael Clark, a lead author of the report, told me: “The best estimates I’ve seen are that the impact of transporting food from the farm where it’s produced, to process it, to package it, to stick it in a refrigerator and then get it to somebody’s house — that entire set of impacts is about 5 percent of the impacts of actually producing the food.”
Yale Hospitality could do a better job acknowledging the complexities of what sustainable food means. They should be the first to admit how difficult their jobs are, that there’s a tradeoff involved in every decision they make. They can even quote Mark Bomford if they don’t want to say it themselves: “Sustainable practices are composed of sub-practices or sub-components that might be at odds with one another, and these sub-components might just be qualitatively incommensurable: not just comparing apples to oranges, but comparing apples to ineffable ontologies of space-time.”
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Eighty-five percent of the dining hall options might be plant-based, but my friends don’t seem to find much trouble filling nearly 100 percent of their plates with the other 15 percent. (I certainly don’t have any issues myself on chicken tender Thursdays.) I’m sure there are many Yalies familiar with the checkered map of the salad bar; there’s probably even someone who throws an assortment of nuts over every dish. But I think it’s safe to say that many people head right for the end of the hot bar, see what’s there, and call it a day.
One of the central questions of the sustainable food debate is how to best influence consumer habits. At Yale, disagreement over this point seems to have shaped the history of the University’s food culture.
Waters brought Josh Viertel in as the first director of the YSFP in 2002 to help transform her idea into a reality. A year later, he and his student interns were harvesting their first crops from the soil of the Yale Farm. A few months before Viertel left to become president of the organization Slow Food USA in 2008, Yale Hospitality opened shop.
Viertel is disappointed that there’s no longer an emphasis on joining with local farms to create a food community in New Haven.
“I fundamentally believe, and I think this is borne out in research, that one of the reasons why we do so much damage to the environment is because we are very disconnected from our sources,” he said. “The ecological footprint of an institution like Yale is massive. It’s not nearly as massive as the footprint of the decisions made by its graduates. It’s very important that we’re educating, and one of the ways that we educate is through the operations.”
Bomford questions the premise that “if only people knew about the damage caused by their practices, or if only people knew about the full story of where their food comes from, or where their power comes from, they would change.” He doubts whether awareness leads to responsible eating (Bomford seems to have been looking at very different research than Viertel): “You know, there’s just no evidence to support that people do change if they know. The evidence supports the idea that people are fairly bound by a lot of structures that are largely unacknowledged.”
Both Yale Hospitality and the current YSFP say they are focused on making a difference farther up the food chain, so to speak, with corporations, policymakers and other such beasts with big appetites.
“What you eat in four years of college is not going to change the way the world eats and farms,” Bomford said.
Viertel calls this approach the “Walmart sustainability route.” He outlined for me the kind of decision-making process behind it: “You know, if we can get Tyson [an enormous multinational processed meats company] to use organic feed, that’s better than working with a local farmer,” and why it’s dangerous: “If we can feel that there’s a person and a place impacted by our decisions, that’s what drives our willingness to take risks, to make sacrifices.” If you choose the Walmart path, “you lose out on the educational side, you lose out on the relationships side, and, often, you actually lose out on the tangible things that really matter.”
The EAT-Lancet commission calls for all of the above — everyone has a role to play, from the highest government official down to the lowliest Yale student. Still, when I asked a couple of the report’s authors about what Yale can do, they also seemed to split on where the wedge should be driven in first.
“The dining hall has to give people food that they’re going to eat. From an environmental perspective, yes, reducing the number of burgers they’re producing and serving to the students will be beneficial,” Clark said. “But if the students aren’t going to eat the other food, they’re kind of stuck.”
Brent Loken, another lead author on the report, falls more in line with Viertel’s educational vision.
“When you look at universities across the U.S., that’s a huge amount of food being served every single day, and when you walk into most universities, the food is absolutely terrible — it’s terrible for health, it’s terrible for the environment — and we’re teaching young adults to eat this kind of food,” he said. “The fact of the matter is we’re running out of time.”
There’s no question about the impact that institutions like Yale can have, especially with the funds at their disposal. “You guys are the trendsetters,” Loken encouraged me. Viertel told me a funny story from the early days at Yale: “We had a visit from Harvard’s dining services director, and we asked if they were doing anything around sustainability in the dining halls. He said, ‘shit, we have to, thanks to you assholes.’”
In truth, though, many of the decisions higher up are really about getting individuals like us to make the right decisions down here. We don’t need pressure from Yale to go at the steamed green beans like they were chicken tendies. We could call Yale Hospitality’s bluff until they only lose money by ordering from Tyson.
Take a close look at what the EAT-Lancet diet recommends. If you’re one of the 10 billion people left on the planet in 2050, chances are you’ll be eating a lot like that. Whether you end up growing your vegetables in your backyard garden, or having them shipped to you from Siberia, you might as well prepare yourself now.
Matthew Kleiner | email@example.com .