How Well Do You Know Your Food? D3 Examines Food Sustainability

By Maia Livengood

October 23, 2009 — Christina Pirello"Food for Thought: What Does it Mean to Eat Sustainably” kicked-off the fall quarter D3 series. Industry experts David Siller and Christina Pirello presented on sustainable food production, preparation, and acquisition, as well as barriers to eating sustainably. The response to the event was so positive that extra seating was needed.

Siller, an educator at the Weaver’s Way Farm in Northwest Philadelphia, opened the talk with an overview of the farm’s history and current operations. Established as a demonstration farm in 2000, the four-acre Weaver’s Way site, formerly a vacant lot, was transformed into several productive produce fields by a handful of volunteers. In 2002, the farm was able to introduce education programs for the surrounding community, especially for primary school-age children, who are given lessons in healthful eating and good nutrition.

To narrow the concept of sustainability, Siller discussed aspects of both financial sustainability and a systems-based approach for food sustainability. Ideally, food sustainability operates in a closed loop system: demands equally met by supply within a system where all wastes are recycled. The Weaver’s Way farm strives to create a closed loop education model by using vacant urban plots, limiting crops to regional produce (grown in-season), selling to a local cooperative grocery store, and composting waste.

Part of the systems approach responsibilities belong to the consumers, said Siller, including eating seasonal foods and limiting meat consumption, but also considers a redefinition of what constitutes “food.” Ensuring that all potential products are being used is a key aspect of sustainability. And for those on the production side, food sustainability means composting, using space efficiently, and permaculture, which is the mimicking relationships found in natural ecologies.

But Siller reflected that only with financial sustainability can educational farms be a viable demonstration tool. By filling a niche market with a rapidly growing demand, the Weaver’s Way farm has seen both substantial financial as well as physical growth over the last seven years. In fact, urban farming is becoming increasingly popular, and has attracted national attention, in part due to industry expert Michael Pollan’s bestsellers: The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food.

Evidence of the urban farming trend can be found in food aficionado hotspots. Berkeley, San Francisco, New York, and Chicago are home to dozens of community gardens and privately owned plots throughout the cities. One of the first chefs to endorse locally grown foods is Alice Waters, founder of renowned fine dining restaurant Chez Panisse. Waters opened her Berkeley restaurant in the 1970s and shortly after began her hunt for the highest-quality produce. Finding that local growers offered a powerful dual combination of freshness and fair-practice growing techniques, she became the first true American pioneer in culinary philosophy. Today, Chez Panisse markets the immediacy of vegetables just out of the garden and fruit off the branch. The restaurant has established a network of nearby suppliers who, like the restaurant, are striving for both environmental harmony and superior flavor. This sentiment, too, was echoed recently by Nicholas Fanucci, general manager of The French Laundry in Napa, California, while delivering a speech to Drexel culinary students.

To communicate the importance of food sustainability, restaurants like Chez Panissse have established educational programs such as The Edible Schoolyard, a youth educational gardening program, which is ideologically similar to the Weaver’s Way Farm. By using food systems as a unifying concept, students learn how to grow, harvest, and prepare nutritious seasonal produce.

College students, too, have identified a need for access to healthier food options and education on food production. At Pitzer College in Pasadena, CA, the student-run café, The Shakedown, operates by the philosophy that, “The Shakedown is about reconnecting people with their food. At The Shakedown, we know food is something that should be cherished and enjoyed to the fullest, which starts with just a simple seed.” The café even maintains its own garden plot, utilizing all produce in for-sale menu items.

If one thing is clear, multi-dimensional healthful eating is becoming trendy. But there is a strong political aspect of food lobbying, too.

Pirello certainly isn’t a stranger to food politics; she was one of the movement’s first advocates. Host of the show “Christina Cooks,” author of five healthy-living cookbooks, a member of the Green Council of Philadelphia, and an outspoken vegan activist, Pirello deliveres her very serious message through humor, with just a hint of sass.

She was exposed to the importance of healthful eating in childhood. Her mother began a PTA letter-writing campaign that led to the national boycott of Kellogg’s Cornflakes, lobbying for the removal of chemical additives BHA/BHT. And after being diagnosed as an adult with leukemia, Pirello successfully battled the disease by modifying her diet to include only whole unprocessed foods, and has been promoting the natural lifestyle ever since.

Her talk began on a definitive political note that reflected on the charge by such government icons as John McCain that the fresh foods movement is “elitist.” McCain spokesperson Brian Rogers once commented that “In terms of who’s an elitist, I think people have made a judgment that John McCain is not an arugula-eating type,” implying that certain types of food are eaten only by snobs. Pirello has a point: a strong relationship has developed between industrial agriculture and government policy, which has resulted in a highly successful mass-marketing machine. It’s no coincidence that annual meat consumption in the US increased from 23 pounds per person in 1973 to 260 pounds per person currently. The same can be said for this century’s increase in milk consumption, aided by highly successful advertising campaigns such as the “Got Milk?” mustache ads. “Marketing prevents sustainability by making you feel unfulfilled,” Pirello remarked, as if there’s something that needs “fixing.”

Furthermore, Pirello posed the possibility that beginning with the introduction of the USDA certification for organic products, the spirit of organic production has been lost. Today, any product containing FDA approved chemical additives may be sold as organic. This has allowed for genetically modified products, among others, to be sold with organic labels, which is a major source of current food industry conflict.

Despite the powerful political obstacles to eating sustainably, however, Pirello believes that “Eating well is a right, not a privilege. You can walk into a WaWa and make healthy choices. Eating is all about making choices. Farmers markets are not chic and trendy; they’re a way for you to stand in front of the person growing your food and ask him what’s in it.”

In closing, she observed that “Everybody knows Americans want to be healthier. The question is what that means. We need to educate.”

The tables then broke into discussion groups and addressed the questions from a student perspective: What does it mean to eat sustainably? What are the controversies that exist? What are the barriers?

Several attendees pinpointed cooking as a barrier to eating sustainably. It seems that both time and practice are lacking, and as a result, many young college students resort to lunch trucks or fast food for nutritional needs. Others offered advice on how to make eating sustainably more convenient: printing a schedule for local farmers markets, ordering CSA boxes, eating vegetarian, or eating less in general.

This D3 offered an open forum for everyone to discuss relatable experiences and challenges with sustainable eating in a constructive and informative manner.

The event concluded with a dinner served on biodegradable place settings, the perfect touch for an evening devoted to sustainable living. Much thanks to Susan Stein, from the Department of Communication, who organized the event.

Maia Livingood '12 is a Business Administration major with concentrations in Finance and Economics, as well as an English minor. Working for the College of Arts and Sciences, she has developed a strong interest in publication management and hopes to build upon the experience throughout her professional career.