So, I walked through the grocery store the other day and picked up a box of Pop-Tarts, not so much because I wanted to buy them, but more for the sake of nostalgia. I used to eat Pop-Tarts all the time when I was a kid — the cinnamon kind that I stuck in the toaster until they were all gooey and delicious. I read the list of ingredients, took a look at the picture on the front of the package, and thought to myself: What is a Pop-Tart? Seriously, this is a food we call by its brand name because we don’t have a better description for it. We don’t know what they’re made of or how to classify them — kind of strange if you think about it.

This weird observation about Pop-Tarts isn’t completely random. It brings to light the most basic problem with the modern food system. As a society, we’re completely separated from our food: where it comes from, how it’s processed and what it’s made with. Even the fruits and vegetables that we find at our grocery stores are too perfect. Our tomatoes are too red, lacking any blemishes or bruises. Our potatoes couldn’t possibly have come from the ground, as they’re just too clean to have been grown in the dirt.

When food is presented in perfect colors and nice square boxes, we lose our association with what we eat and the earth that it comes from. Educating people about this disconnect is the heart of the local, sustainable food movement — a movement that is alive and well at the University.

The evening of Oct. 2, I headed out to the University’s Matthaei Botanical Gardens to check out the annual Harvest Festival put on by the University of Michigan’s Sustainable Food Program. The Harvest Festival was held at the Campus Farm, a two-acre plot of land established in 2013 after the success of the initial pilot project that began with the initiative of a group of University masters students and a $42,000 Planet Blue Innovation Fund. There was live music, games and tours of the farm by student volunteers. But most of all, there was food — real food — growing right there for people to pick and eat themselves.

UMSFP’s mission is to foster “collaborative leadership that empowers students to create a sustainable food system at the University of Michigan while becoming change agents for a vibrant planet.” A sizable mission, to be sure, but after recently participating in a weekly “work day” at the Campus Farm, I’m more convinced than ever that UMSFP and its mission are making a difference in the University community.

The majority of students that participate in the work days aren’t environmentalists. They didn’t come to the farm thinking that organic farming is the solution to solving the separation between us and the food that we eat. On the contrary, most students have had no experience gardening — let alone farming. They come instead to socialize with new people and enjoy being outside when the weather is warm and they have the chance to get away from campus. Several people told me that after a week of staring at a computer screen and sitting in lecture, the Campus Farm was the place they came to settle down and take a break.

Yet, by working at the farm, students are naturally becoming more aware and more connected with the food system and their place in it. People who have never seen a dirty potato are digging them out of the ground. They’re picking peppers that they never would’ve bought in a store because they aren’t the perfect color, and they’re eating food, knowing exactly how it was grown and where it came from. Whether students are planting trees, spreading compost or harvesting produce while they spend time with friends, they’re actively bridging the gap between themselves and their food.

With the help of hands-on experience, students are learning about responsible, sustainable food. In this way, UMSFP’s mission is becoming a success. As students participate in local, organic farming they’re learning the value of mixing with different people and learning about new and interesting perspectives.

Teaching people to become future agents of change and help to develop a more sustainable University might sound like a daunting task. It turns out that it isn’t so hard, if you just encourage people to get outside, plant a little of their own food and play in the dirt.

Kate Lamarie can be reached at laramiek@umich.edu.

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