The Future of Food

Why the future of our food falls on the shoulders of students.

A student in Lee Lines' Food, Culture, and Environment course gets close to the origins of her food. Photo by Lee Lines A student in Lee Lines' Food, Culture, and Environment course gets close to the origins of her food. Photo by Lee Lines

“Many aspects of our food system are broken or breaking,” said Tomatoland author Barry Estabrook during his November 27 visit to Rollins College. “Unfortunately, you students may be left holding the bag.”

That’s a warning that audience members—including Matthew Bengtson ’15, a student enrolled in a course titled Food, Culture, and Environment—didn’t take lightly. Over the course of the last four months, these students have peeled back the layers of the U.S. agricultural system and peered into the world of industrial food, and they all agree wholeheartedly with Estabrook: Things need to change.

“In this course, we looked closely at where our food comes from and the cultural and economic implications involved,” said Bengtson, an environmental studies major. Required reading such as Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and a 12-day field study trip to explore Oregon’s sustainable agricultural model have enlightened Bengtson to the failings of the current food system, including its reliance on fossil fuels and the lack of transparency within the industrial food system.

“I realize now that food producers are not interested in full-disclosure,” Bengtson said. “And unfortunately, too many people are uneducated about the implications of the way our food is produced and don’t or won’t take the time to do the kind of research we have done.” That sort of research includes looking at dishes from local restaurants and tracing the origins of each ingredient used to make it.

“We looked at a club sandwich from a restaurant on Park Avenue and traced the origins of all 11 ingredients, including the tomato, bread, and bacon,” Bengtson said. “We found that its ingredients came from seven different states. That’s a lot of fossil fuel for one sandwich. But we also realize that restaurants need to find the most cost-effective route and need to stay competitive with their pricing.”

Tracy Waguespack ’15, also an environmental studies major, agrees with her classmate about the necessity and complexity of educating consumers on where their food comes from. “The most eye-opening thing I've learned from this class is the lack of knowledge about products on the consumer end of the food system and the lack of transparency on the producer side,” she said. “Food is such an intimate part of our lives, yet so many people have no idea what they are eating, what goes into making food, or where the food comes from. In order to change the status quo, it has to be a combination of consumer-based awareness and better food standards and regulations controlling the producing side.”

This is exactly the kind of understanding professor Lee Lines hopes to see in his students. “The course has been empowering for them, not just learning about how bad things are and all the problems, but looking at ways it can be remedied into something much better socially and environmentally,” Lines said . “They are realizing that people have more power than they think; companies respond to consumer demand.”

The course has been part of a five-course academic immersion program for environmental studies majors designed and co-taught by Lines and professor Barry Allen. It’s too soon to tell whether these students will become the next change makers in the food industry, but judging by recent graduates of the course, Lines suspects that at least a few of them will go on to be more than simple armchair critics.

In 2007, Colleen Mahoney ’11 took Lines’ food course, which was part of a similar four-course environmental studies academic immersion. Mahoney calls the course’s field study in Northern California and the provocative required reading list life changing. By the time the Christmas break rolled around, she had become completely vegan and hasn’t eaten a piece of meat since. “Before this class, I had never been to a farm before or seen food coming out of the ground,” she said. “It was really impactful and caused me to start thinking really hard about the choices I was making.”

After graduating, Mahoney began working with Grow Pittsburgh, a non-profit focused on cultivating urban agriculture initiatives like edible schoolyards and community gardens. Mahoney has since joined the staff of Venture Outdoors, a non-profit that encourages people to be active outside by offering outdoor activities such as hiking, canoeing, and rock climbing. But her life is still very much focused on food. Mahoney has joined a community-supported agriculture program and belongs to a vegan group.

Lines, who still stays in contact with Mahoney, gets a lot of satisfaction from hearing that his course sparked something in her and inspired her to get involved. “When Barry Estabrook visited this fall, he met with our students and really drove home the point that they can make a big difference in making our food system better. They will play a role in reshaping it.”

And they already are. Whether simply becoming educated about the source of their food or boycotting on-campus Taco Bell restaurants until they sign the Fair Food Act, students across the county have had a huge impact in influencing change in the food industry. “At a bare minimum,” Lines says, “we are all beginning to realize that we vote with our forks.”