Monday, February 11th, 2013...12:17 am

Elites Going Back on the System?

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As part of several student groups dealing with food on Tufts Campus, I found Peggy Barlett’s piece in American Anthropologist, “Campus Sustainable Food Projects: Critique and Engagement,” to be very interesting. She argues that campus food projects are powerful spaces to test ideas and ideals about alternative food systems. But something I’ve been grappling with as a student food activist is that universities are often spaces of elitism, so how can these institutions really transform a system—a system they’ve been a part of—that capitalizes on inequality?

I ground this question with a look at Washington and Lee University’s interest in food security in Rockbridge County. Through “Poor Diet,” a four-week investigation for a capstone project, Washington and Lee (W&L) journalism students looked at why many people in Rockbridge struggle to access healthy food. They made this video as an introduction to the issues of food security in Rockbridge:

Washington and Lee is a small (~2000 students) private liberal arts college in Lexington, Virginia, the county seat of Rockbridge. Most of the students are not from the area, and most do not stick around after graduation. Growing up in Rockbridge, I can safely say that many people, employees aside, feel very disconnected from W&L, whose students are often considered to be very wealthy and elite.

However, be it because of or in spite of its wealth, the school has several initiatives to change the food system as it exists in Rockbridge.

Among these initiatives is a commitment to buy local products such as meat, cheese, yogurt, honey, peanuts, and berries. An article from the W&L website claims, “every dollar spent locally yields $1.80 in economic benefit to the area… It’s not only the economic benefits that are important. Purchasing locally also enhances the bond between W&L and the community.”

On the one hand, this could be just another case of the elite buying high quality local products because they can. On the other hand, W&L has the capacity to choose (and is choosing) to support local businesses over large distributors. Even better, as Barlett points out, the school is, in a way, modeling and laying the experimental groundwork for alternative foodways that other institutions may be able to use someday. Other colleges and universities, primary and secondary schools, military operations, hospitals, and many more could benefit from the foundational work W&L—or any college doing something similar—is doing. W&L, in its elite and wealthy position can afford to design an alternative foodway through trial and error and ultimately establish a co-dependent relationship with nearby food producers. W&L’s special projects coordinator for Dining Services, Chris Carpenter, speaks on this subject in the audio clip below:

Chris Carpenter speaks about W&L sourcing locally

An increase in local purchasing from the myriad institutions that can restructure to follow W&L’s model could mean more job opportunities and localized economies. More money to more people in Rockbridge through an institution that has the power to direct its funds is, in the eyes of a Rockbridge local, a good thing. It begins to address unemployment and low income issues that contribute to the food insecurity that the W&L journalism students were investigating.

So what does this mean for my question? How can these elite institutions like W&L or Tufts really transform a system that capitalizes on inequality?

The food system as it exists today was born from years of privileging large-scale specialization, privileging the few over the many. Universities and higher education in general have also privileged the few over the many with high tuition rates and institutionalized racism. Once universities became more businesses than centers of learning, specializing in this discipline or that, fighting unionizing attempts on the part of custodial and food workers, and investing in exploitative big businesses, the difference between an industrial food system and the university system shrunk. The inequalities that keep the industrial food system going keep the university going too, most obviously when they joined forces as big-time, low-paying distributors entered very restrictive contracts with many of our nation’s universities.

And then W&L goes against the flow, using its power and privilege to pause and examine its place within a community and within a system. Turning against industrialized food in its dining halls redirects money from exploitative businesses to local, often struggling food production that has the great capability of feeding a school the size of W&L.

It’s very much an uncomfortable thing: to watch an unjust system shaped by inequality get challenged by the very beneficiaries of the system, and to watch the new emerging system come from an erstwhile adversary. But if the beneficiaries see something’s wrong, then the paths they forge make it easier for other, less privileged institutions to embark on a route they desire but never had the resources to take. W&L, as long as you’ve got the money and the power to do it, please keep supporting our local farmers, and please make it easy for all the other universities in the Shenandoah Valley to do the same. You share your wealth, Rockbridge will share its own.

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