In the third annual Fast Food for Thought, 10 University of Michigan faculty members came together Tuesday night for a fast-paced discussion about fast food and its environmental, agricultural and health implications.
The event, hosted by the UM Sustainable Food Systems Initiative, attracted a full crowd of students, faculty, researchers and farmers in a Dana Building auditorium.
The SFSI is a group of interdisciplinary faculty and staff affiliates that study food systems through different lenses, including soil research, obesity prevention, health equity, nutrition and art and design.
With funding from eight University departments and professors from nine distinguishable departments, the event aimed to raise awareness of and initiate dialogue on health promotion, ecology and equity surrounding food systems. Lilly Fink Shapiro, coordinator for SFSI, said she organized the event to engage the community at large.
“Food system change requires us to look at food from many different angles, so the fact that we have so many resources and faculty and students here studying all of these different things, we can break down the disciplinary silos and come together to solve a greater problem,” Shapiro said.
She highlighted the interdisciplinary and interdependent nature of the issue. As an example, she noted that expanding access to quality foods will decrease diet-related disease, health care costs and associated burdens.
“Let’s think of this system as a game of dominos — nothing happens in isolation,” Shapiro said. “Each individual chain triggers additional movement. Any action onto one domino can substantially impact another domino far down the line. It’s all tied together.”
In her remarks, Julia Wolfson, assistant professor in the School of Public Health, highlighted cooking as an example of the need for multidisciplinary solutions and education.
“There’s so much work to be done on so many different levels and we’re all going to need to come together to make the change we want to see possible,” she said.
Jean DuRussel-Weston, University Health system education specialist, talked about the lack of food system education in middle school and high school.
“A lot of people don’t know where their food comes from,” she said. “We did have a student that was amazed, that had never seen a real strawberry — like a fresh one. When you hear stories like that, you realize that many of us live in a bubble.”
Though most speakers agreed that education is key, DuRussel-Weston highlighted in particular the importance of practical educational experiences for younger children. She said children need to actively apply what they’ve learned.
“We’re not just throwing information at kids, but we’re trying to help them have hands-on experiences and then go on and practice them,” she said.
While many prevention efforts discussed during the event focused on education and other upstream factors, one speaker emphasized the need for policy change for suppliers as well. Jeremy Moghatder, a farmer at the University’s Matthaei Botanical Gardens, emphasized the need to destigmatize careers in farming, saying the number of farmers that work at workforce has decreased from 30 percent to 2 percent over the last 100 years.
“If we live in a world where the sons and daughters of farmers can grow up to be whatever they want, then we also need to live in a world where the sons and daughters of doctors, lawyers, carpenters, educators and engineers, can choose to be farmers,” he said.
Moghatder called farming as a dynamic workforce, rather than a lifelong job. He said that such reframing is necessary if communities want to encourage farming and food production as a professional career.
“We need a new narrative for farm and farmer success, and better mechanisms for policies for training new farmers and facilitating the transfer of farm and farm businesses from one professional farmer to another,” he said. “This updating of our narrative is just the beginning. After that, we must do the hard work of making it a reality.”
Several students, including Rackham student Amira Halaway who spoke at the event stressed attendees to spread awareness, saying campus dialogue on these issues was important in helping resolve them.
“They’re all trying to attack a similar problem from different angles or different aspects of it,” Halaway said.
In the future, Shapiro said she hopes to hold the event at the Michigan Theater to reach a larger audience both on and off campus.
“Tonight is one step to promote interdisciplinary thinking,” she said. “The sustainable food systems initiative works across disciplines and across sectors to build food systems that are health-promoting, economically viable and ecologically sound.”