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.

I say "ominously" because this bodes poorly for the future of sustainable eating. It suggests that a movement now associated with elite foodies will always be associated with elite foodies.

Cost was the most common concern running through the blogs. To be fair, there were intriguing suggestions that the sustainable option was in fact economically achievable. Elizabeth wrote that "my diet was no more expensive than buying a meal plan--actually, it was cheaper." Avik was equally sanguine, noting that he was able to eat "purely local meals for around the same cost as my usual meals."

But these comments were the exceptions. The rule was perhaps best embodied in the experience of Will--the six-dollar-a-meal guy. The poor guy found himself on the edge of gustatory despair. "I might just be fighting a losing battle," he wrote. "Sustainable living is not something that can be maintained by someone on a tight budget."

At one point, in a desperate effort to feed his ample (6'2", 200 lb) frame a square meal, Will resorted to giving "the dollar menu at McDonalds a try." He wolfed two McDoubles (whatever the hell those are) and an order of fries, and then sheepishly admitted that he'd just consumed "the most processed food you can find." (Will eventually found redemption in a coffeehouse where he not only relaxed in a chair made from hay bales but was able to score a banana, cup of joe, and "a huge blueberry muffin" for under six bucks.)

Michael resisted the fast-food route (although he plugged Chipotle), but admitted that eating organic and local was a chore and not a "cheap diet." After shopping at both Whole Foods and Harris Teeter he quickly realized that he "personally cannot afford to eat their products on a habitual basis." All in all he deemed the organic option "just too expensive for the average college student." Like other students, though, he ultimately deemed the expenditure worth the trouble: "I think in the long run, in terms of health and environmental sustainability, it will be worth it." To which we can only say: good for Michael.

But does everyone see it this way? Can everyone see it this way? As these refreshingly candid blog entries strongly suggest, a sustainable diet will never go mainstream if costs do not compete with cheap cafeteria crap. As I read these entries, I found myself having a hard time escaping the suspicion that a sustainable diet, however defined, will eventually divide eaters into culinary haves and have nots rather than revolutionize--much less democratize--the way we eat. Of course this will be a shame. But for now I can't see it any other way.

When I put the problem to Cohen, who knows more about local foodsheds than anyone out there, he acknowledged that my concern was "a fair observation," and went on to explain that "an integrated system," one coordinating local producers, stores, and consumers into a single infrastructure, would deal with "price structures more effectively." I hope he's right. But in the meantime his students--not to mention the rest of us--have their work cut out for them.