Last Friday, I walked through a greenhouse. It was full of students laughing and talking as they buried seeds into rich soil and watered tiny green seedlings. I heard students introducing themselves to fellow classmates they would have otherwise never met as they learned what tiny pepper plants look like and how many different kinds of lettuce there are.
Until very recently, this scene would have only been found at Yale University, at Michigan State University, at Duke University, but not at the University of Michigan. Here at Michigan, there was no large university-wide option for students to come together over growing food, to bond over pepper plants, or to learn what produce looks like before it’s bound up under the lights at the supermarket or on the buffet line in their dining hall. If students learned about food at all — food, the stuff we enjoy and talk over and depend on for our survival every day, the topic that creates a common thread between all peoples, communities and our environment — it was in a theoretical sense, such as a classroom or outside of school entirely in a student group. Those student groups, I hasten to add, such as Cultivating Community, Outdoor Adventures Garden Project and many others are doing outstanding and inspiring work.
But this is changing. Until last year, we were one of very few of our peer schools without a campus farm. That scene I described took place in the greenhouse that is here on University property on a workday for the new campus farm. This is a new era, and there is real potential for the University to become a victor in the field of sustainable food. So many things are pushing us in that direction, such as the clear goals for food sustainability set out in the University’s Integrated Assessment, the new Food Systems faculty cluster hire in progress, the nearly-a-dozen graduate and undergraduate student groups working on issues related to food and agriculture and the new courses with food components springing up every semester.
Created last year, the UM Sustainable Food Program seeks to harness and organize that energy and the campus farm to create a place where theory and talk can find physical outlet in the hands-on and community-building work of actually growing food. These programs have come far in the past year. Our goals of creating a community around food, of providing a new kind of experiential education for students and of providing fresh, healthy, local produce are already being realized in many ways.
But momentum is lost when it’s not supported. The ball stops rolling when it has no clear path. And programs falter when there is no clear leadership. Until now, this initiative has been student-led, with advice and support from faculty and staff. In order for the UM Sustainable Food Program and campus farm to endure, to bring real food, true sustainability, fresh community and creative education to the University, we need to institutionalize this program. The University can prove itself in the field of sustainability, but it needs to do so by putting its money where its mouth is and devoting a full-time staff member to the management of this program and farm. Let’s meet the challenge of our peer schools. Let’s go beyond talk. Let’s bring sustainable food to campus and create a future where our dining halls boast sourcing from our own campus farm, where students make new friends over harvesting their own lunch, and where students, faculty, staff and members of the community can come together over one thing we all love to talk about: food.
The time is now. If we wait to act, the momentum dies. Let’s do what it takes to make this future a reality.
Elizabeth Dengate is a Rackham student.