From-farm-to-table: it’s the idea that our food is pulled right out of the farm ground with one hand and placed onto our dinner tables with the other. With our backyard gardens and our organic supermarkets, it seems like we have reached the ideal: we are closer to the “farm-fresh” way of eating right now more than ever before. Yet, the 2008 documentary “Food Inc.” laid out that of the estimated 47,000 products that typically make up our supermarkets, 75% of them are produced by the same 4 multi-million dollar companies—including organics, generics, and variety types alike. So, it begs the question, how fresh is your dining table food on such a large scale? I looked to none-other than my own current “dinner table” for the answer—the University of Illinois Dining Facilities. What I found was that with a little student help and a lot of funding, the University seems to have some form of the answer key— organic, locally sourced food.
What do you get when you mix environmentally-minded students with a 5-acre plot of farm land? At the University of Illinois, the answer is what we now call the Sustainable Student Farm, or the SSF. Producing a whopping average of 30,000 lbs. of produce each year, SSF sells around 20% of it directly to the students of the University through a weekly market on the main quad. The other 80% is mainly sold to University Dining through a partnership. The SSF is also almost completely organic, with only one non-organic, non-compostable aspect to the farm being a biodegradable plastic mulch used to cover the greenhouse floor. Aside from that, however, the farm uses only natural pesticides and organic materials. According to Farmer Stephan, a farmer on the SSF and graduate of The University of Illinois, being organic is a lifestyle that benefits more than just those who eat the produce. Some of the benefits include “not bringing in synthetic implants,” which is better for plant health, and having soil microbiota better able to break down components. It also lends itself to allowing biodiversity in the plants they grow, as well as the eco-systems that live in and around them. “Using the term organic, you feel like you have solidarity with those who have that ethos,” says Farmer Stephan. “It feels like the entire way of thinking about our food system as a naturally different food paradigm is a huge benefit.” So, when asked “why not just use standard chemical fertilizer and let runoff bleed into the ponds?” we were awaiting the scientific answer. Yet, in addition to explaining how that causes eutrophication, or unnatural algae blooms, Farmer Stephan appealed to his values by saying, “that just wouldn’t be right.” He went on, “With organics, you don’t mind eating it right out the ground.” The Sustainable Student Farm does great things, and sounds like the ultimate poster-child for the “farm-to-table” ideology. How many plates, however, does this farm fresh food reach through the 80% that is sent to University Dining? Well, as it turns out, not very many.
Currently the food from the SSF only contributes around 1% of University Dining’s consumption. So, we turn to Dr. Dawn Aubrey, the Director of Dining Services at University of Illinois, to learn how she decides not only what food students eat at the dining halls, but also where it is from. During the academic year, University Dining serves around 40,000 meals. Yet currently, the food from the SSF only contributes to around 1% of that consumption. 28% of it is locally grown, and the rest is commercial products, mainly from California. “We’ve met the folks who make our coffee. We look for Fair Trade, Rainforest Certification, and we are buying from local sources who have buyers.” The goal of using local food is emphasized and exersized in University Dining, which leads to a sustainably minded outcome. According to Dr. Aubrey, they are “plant forward and focused,” and anything purchased is “produced and transported in a sustainable manner.” So why go invest in all those sustainable methods? For Dr. Aubrey, when you are feeding that many people, it boils down to what you care about. “It’s about values, you are entrusting us with your resources.”
With their values in the right places, Farmer Stephan and Dr. Aubrey provide University Dining with a more sustainable impact on the world. However, on the larger the scale, the 78% of University Dining consumption that is not locally produced strays away from being “locally-sourced” and ends up being grown and transported from elsewhere. As the 5-acre Sustainable Student Farm can only feed so many, more of our food is lost to chemical pesticides and harmful additives.
According to “Food Inc.” “as individual consumers, we have the power to shift the market.” But how exactly can you and I shift such a huge, pre-existing market? The answer lies in planting a home garden, buying from local farmers markets, and even changing our diet to be “plant focused” to create a better natural food system. We can strive to echo the ethos that Farmer Stephan sees when he tends to the farm everyday. “The future is aggregating smaller producers in a big way,” he stated, and this ideology is what can change our food system. It is not about making the SSF bigger, or making University Dining smaller. It is about watching what you buy, and where you buy it—and realizing a small change can make a big impact. Michael Pollen in the 2013 excerpt for the New York Times titled “Power Steer” claims, “We are what we eat, it is often said, but of course that’s only part of the story.” Ultimately it is for us to decide what parts of the story we deem important, and how we choose to be active in that decision. From the thousands of shelved products all produced by the same companies as depicted in “Food Inc.” that we consume on a daily, I hope that we can someday all be fundamentally involved in what we are and what we eat. I hope we can proudly say we know exactly where our food is coming from. Then we can truly say how our food went from the soil of the farm to the warmth of our dinner table.
- Kenner, Robert, et al. Food, Inc. 2014.
- Interview with Dr. Dawn Aubrey, 2017.
- Interview with Farmer Stephan, 2017.
- Pollan, Michael. “Power Steer.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 30 Mar. 2002, http://www.nytimes.com/2002/03/31/magazine/power-steer.html.
Article by Nidhi Shastri