Good Food: Who Can Afford It?

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Nowhere has the term "eating sustainably" gained more traction than on college campuses. In a way, this is ironic. Even if college students are maybe the most inclined of anyone to support the virtues of a green diet, they're perhaps the least equipped to do so. The collegiate set is generally cash-strapped, lacking wheels, financially committed to a meal plan, imprisoned in a dorm, and tied down with multiple academic obligations that--at least as I remember it--foster a culinary philosophy best described as the path of least resistance" or, more to the point, "cheap cafeteria crap."

This tension between the hectic reality of college life and the ambitious ideals of sustainability recently played out at the University of Virginia, where engineering students in Professor Benjamin Cohen's class, "Technology, Nature, and Sustainable Agriculture" took it upon themselves to try and eat a responsible diet in Charlottesville. Their essential aim was to identify opportunities to improve sustainable eating options while trying to figure out what "sustainability" meant for them personally.

Cohen, an expert in nineteenth-century soil science, structured his class knowing full well that UVA students "enter a food system whose design and options precede them." But, he added, for all the obstacles that stand between undergrads and a decent diet, "Their difficulties are those of a kind of leisure class." Sure, these kids are preoccupied the obligations of college life. But still: if they can't eat responsibly, who can?

As these refreshingly candid blog entries strongly suggest, a sustainable diet will never go mainstream if costs do not compete with cheap cafeteria crap.

The outcomes, captured over the course of a week in intelligently turned blogs kept by four of Cohen's students, reveal both the promises and perils of eating an environmentally sound diet in a progressive college town. By extension, they offer telling insights into the future of an idea--sustainable eating--that promises to be one of this century's most relevant.

In most respects, students were optimistic about their experience. Elizabeth (students chose to withhold last names) wrote about eating a vegetarian diet. She concluded that eating responsibly, which she extended to choosing organic and local food whenever possible, was a liberating and even empowering activity. She reveled in the individualism and flexibility the project fostered: "Each person's diet has to start out as an experiment where you try different things and then slowly develop a realistic system."

Other students were equally upbeat. Avik, who limited his diet to locally sourced food, wrote that his meals constituted "probably the most sustainable food that I have ever had." Michael, who ate only organic food, lamented the impossibility of going organic in the dining halls. But, he concluded, consistent access to organic food "is viable at UVA" for those willing to explore their surroundings. Will, who tried to eat sustainably for under six dollars a meal, noted that his efforts were bound to come to naught if he didn't "seek out local and organic meals," which he was moved to do. All these remarks collectively suggest that eating ethically was well within reach of the average Wahoo.

But read beyond the enthusiasm and a more stubborn reality sets in. Although students took justifiable pride in their efforts, their blogs are by no means fawning paeans to the easy virtues of sustainability. To the contrary, what they did was taxing--often frustratingly so. Not only were the pitfalls of eating an environmentally responsible diet numerous but, somewhat ominously, one problem stood head and shoulders above the others: it was expensive.

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James McWilliams is an associate professor of history at Texas State University, San Marcos, and author of Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly.

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