Anthropology lecturer talks early University food research, connection to modern sustainability

Friday, November 15, 2019 - 12:27am

Anthropology lecturer Lisa C. Young describes her research process during a lecture in the Gerald Ford Library Thursday evening.

Anthropology lecturer Lisa C. Young describes her research process during a lecture in the Gerald Ford Library Thursday evening. Buy this photo
Alex Baker/Daily

About 20 community members joined Anthropology lecturer Lisa C. Young for a lecture titled “Lilly Stalks, Pounded Murphies, and Caramel Ice Cream: Investigating the Food System that Fed U-M Students a Century Ago” at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library on Thursday evening. Young delivered the lecture as part of the ongoing “Lectures on the History of the University of Michigan” series. 

To begin the lecture, Young described the research process of her seminar for first-year students titled “Food at the University of Michigan: Then and Now.” She said the class dug through 100-year-old student scrapbooks provided by the Bentley Historical Library to find banquet menus that captured the culinary picture of the University in the early 20th century. 

Young had students work backward from the menus to find the sources of the food, referencing her background in archeology. 

“One of the things we do with archeology is we take some information and we make inferences about the past,” Young said. “So, that’s what I’m working with the students on: the process of going from the table back to the farm just to think about what that food system was like.”

The lecture also explored an early food sustainability movement at the University in the 1910s similar to efforts to reduce food waste in dining halls across campus today. 

Menus from the World War I period caught the attention of Young and her seminar students. 

“As the U.S. got into World War I, the U.S. Food Administration started talking to the general population about conserving food,” Young said. “We were really promoting meatless and wheatless days. It changed during the year and a half the U.S. was involved in World War I based on the needs of Europe.”

Young noticed the sustainability effort was largely driven by students, rather than the administration. 

“There start to be articles in The Michigan Daily about fraternities and sororities asking for, one or two days a week, not having meat or not having wheat as part of the menu,” Young said. “It’s like the students are out there driving this, ‘We need to do this.’”

A popular student poster from 1917 laid out ground rules for sustainable eating, and Young discussed its similarities to a modern day poster found in a campus dining hall. 

“The World War I posted says, ‘Buy food with thought, cook it with care, use less wheat and meat, buy local, serve just enough, use what’s left, and don’t waste anything,’” Young said. “Guess what? These are some of the same goals MDining has put forward as part of their sustainability movements.” 

Rackham student Hannah Hoover was inspired by the connections she saw between the historical and modern sustainability movements.

“It’s not that these practices have changed, it’s just bringing more attention to the strategies that we can implement as individuals,” Hoover said. “It doesn’t have to be a top-down thing. We can choose how we purchase certain foods, where we purchase them from and how we prepare them.”

When asked whether she felt students or administration are more instrumental to modern sustainability movements on campus, Young laid out an optimistic picture.

“The University has set sustainability goals, but the initial discussions about sustainability were driven by students,” Young said. “The beginning of the campus farm was a student project.”

Bentley Historical Library Director Terrence McDonald said each lecture provides a diverse picture of the University’s history.

“In this case, it’s telling us there was a culture of local agriculture and consumption 100 years ago, and it’s possible to get back to that,” McDonald said.

Young closed the lecture in agreement with McDonald. 

“A hundred years ago, people were eating local,” Young said. “There are so many people on the planet now that we need to be thinking like this again.”