The Value of the Oberlin Food Protests

Dining-hall food might not be the most pressing injustice in the world—but students need space to experiment with activism.

Tony Dejak / AP

When I attended Oberlin College—a mere five years ago—I watched two students in paper-white jumpsuits force-feed themselves rotten vegetables and take turns puking on each other. They chose to spew bile-streaked rainbows right in front of the central library just before finals, so anyone wishing to study had to see, hear, and worst of all, smell their art project. I was far from the only innocent bystander to nearly join the retching.

That image sprang to mind this week when the Internet worked itself into a froth about a small group of Oberlin students demanding, among other changes, food that does not trample upon the religions and cultures of various countries. Whatever you think of the merits of their arguments against malformed banh mi and offensive beef tandoori—and the web is currently abuzz with derision for them—it’s not the worst way students could spend their time. They could, for example, be vomiting on each other. Or smoking weed. Or binge-watching Netflix. Or making naked snow angels. (Yes, I saw this happen.)

I’m not defending or siding with the students’ calls for more culturally sensitive food in the dining hall. I myself ate in Oberlin’s co-ops, where options ranged from undercooked, flavorless rice and beans served up by a bored hipster to some of the most fantastic dishes I’ve ever had, cooked by classmates who went on to be professional chefs. It was the first time I ever thought about where my food came from, how it was grown, or who prepared it.

But my point is not about food, or cultural appropriation, or authenticity. It is about the inherent value of student organizing.

When I was a Latin American Studies major back at Oberlin, I learned about the role Chiquita Bananas (then United Fruit) had in the 1954 coup in Guatemala, and about the company’s much more recent payments to paramilitary groups who killed workers in Colombia. Along with some other students, I formed a campaign to push the campus to stop buying and selling Chiquita bananas. This involved researching the history of the banana industry, creating educational pamphlets, organizing documentary screenings and panel discussions, coming to a consensus on our objectives, and presenting a clear argument to the head of campus dining services. She agreed with our request, and began buying only Fair Trade bananas.

Did we change the world? No. Did we save oppressed banana workers from tyranny? Hardly. Did we tackle the most pressing social-justice issue of our time? Not a chance. But we built on what we had learned in the classroom and tried to translate it to real-world action.

Our work attracted its share of critics. Some students accused us of trying to take away their bananas, while college officials warned that our demands would drive up dining costs for students. Neither charge proved true, but the critiques pushed us to do still more research and outreach to win hearts and minds. Yet if I had thought the national news media would be watching my every move—that my little campaign, my first foray into collective action, would be picked apart by the very publications for which I wanted to work someday and then blasted to everyone I know on social media, I might have hesitated to rock the boat. For students more vulnerable than me, first-generation college students or members of traditionally marginalized groups, I assume this attention would be even more stifling. Imagine trying to get your first job to support your family when the top hit in a web search of your name is a scathing Daily Caller article. Should the price of student action be so high that only the very privileged can afford to participate?

At their best, colleges should provide the chance for students to experiment with activism. Pushing for change from an institution of any type or size—be it a city government, a college administration, or a police force—is a complicated and risky endeavor. Better to build skills and try out tactics and messages when the stakes are as low as some bad sushi than to enter the post-college world never having organized around anything. A key part of such an environment is the ability for students to experiment, make mistakes, and pick trivial targets to practice on without the fear of national reprobation. Trust me, the Oberlin community can be viciously critical and hold its own members accountable without assistance from writers who have never been to the campus.

Both professors and current students at Oberlin have told me they are embarrassed by the attention the dining-hall kerfuffle has received from both right-wing and mainstream outlets and on social media. I hope that embarrassment does not have a chilling effect on future student campaigns. I fear that it threatens Oberlin’s longstanding role as an incubator of activists, producing graduates who went on to help escaped slaves on the Underground Railroad, oppose racist voter suppression during the Mississippi Freedom Summer, and defending the legal rights of transgender Americans.

I agree with the critics who say there are more important battles current students could be fighting. Across the country, students are pushing back against everything from fossil-fuel investments to predatory for-profit colleges peddling junk degrees to police violence against students of color. On Oberlin’s own campus, students are demanding the college diversify its faculty, offer more scholarships to undocumented students, and respond more forcefully to threats and hate speech. It’s not a zero-sum game. Even on a tiny, rural campus, a thousand flowers of activism can bloom—as long as students have sufficient space to try, fail, and then learn from their mistakes.

So as media outlets lament that “PC college students are at it again,” and Twitter users blast this campaign as an example of #firstworldproblems, they’re missing the point that students need to find their own gateways to activism.

For me, it was bananas. For these students, it’s botched ethnic cuisine. No matter how trivial the topic that hooks someone in, it can, if nurtured, lead to a lifetime of critical thinking and collective action.

And if Americans find themselves fighting eviction from a developer, or calling on their city council to stop closing public schools, or demanding increased police patrols after a spike in crime, they may wish they had a coddled Oberlin graduate by their side who has learned, through years of trial and error, what works and what doesn’t when pushing for institutional change.