Column: Can Dartmouth get sustainable food access right?

by Han Vale | 11/10/17 12:00am

Recently, Dartmouth announced a clear commitment to address food sustainability throughout campus dining by initiating the formation of a “food working group” comprised of a collective of students, faculty and staff. As one of the students serving in this group, I am as nervous as I am hopeful, and while not jaded, certainly uncertain. I wonder — what would a comprehensive sustainable food action plan look like, and how could we direct our efforts into getting it right? 

By “getting it right,” I mean creating an equitable and sustainable solution to a College food ecosystem, addressing well-researched need in ways that embrace and respect the voices of our suppliers, staff and students. Sustainability is both notoriously hard and, frankly, notoriously one-sided, often overlooking the ways solutions could impact or exclude the most vulnerable members of communities. As the school moves toward a more sustainable campus food system, the needs of students must be remembered and realized.   

If Dartmouth “gets it right” and used this moment as an opportunity to generate novel, creative and equitable solutions to a complex college-specific food ecosystem, what would this look like? Tailored meal plans? Cooking options? Sourcing culturally relevant ingredients? The solutions are only limited by our vision and understanding.

Work by food activists, thought leaders and students alike has already laid the foundation for realms of possibility when it comes to equitably restructuring a sustainable food system based on community need. For example, the keynote speaker for Food Day, visionary and activist Malik Yakini, solved food issues in his community in the form of creating D-Town Farm and the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network. Using food both for its value as food and to build and empower communities, Malik and others’ work has more equitably restructured a portion of that food system. Sharing his intellectual and tactical work with institutions, Yakini emphasizes the importance of this method. 

At Cornell University, a student-run and -designed grocery store exists thoughtfully at the intersection of need and sustainability. Called Anabel’s because it is located in Anabel Taylor Hall, the store brings together students and professors from across disciplines, including finance, food science, architecture and marketing, to merge their skills. With the intent of alleviating food insecurity on campus, Anabel’s team addresses assessed barriers to access. The staff create videos, print recipe pamphlets, source from local farms and even hold cooking lessons. 

“Anabel’s is comprised of a diverse array of students from many different disciplines who are committed to improving Cornell’s food system,” said Alexandra Donovan, a Cornell ’18 and one of the grocery store’s leading team members. “We see the store and our educational programming as a piece of the complex puzzle of food security in the college context.”

The Anabel’s team has proved that at the intersection of sustainability and justice, creative and novel systems can reshape and objectively better a community. Carefully and cross-disciplinarily examining both access and sustainability, devising  creative, specific solutions to specific problems and working diligently to achieve success with this program have made the space revolutionary. I am not saying something like Anabel’s would be a component of Dartmouth’s new sustainable food system, but Dartmouth could and should very well use this sustainability-focused moment to utilize the school’s collective thought power and affect lasting, sustainable and equitable improvements to our campus food system. Dartmouth has the chance to get food right.