In anticipation of Harvard’s upcoming sustainability celebration, a panel discussion on sustainable food took place Tuesday (Oct. 14) in the Faculty Room at University Hall. It began with a reception at which chefs doled out demitasse cups filled with a chowder of Cape Cod Bay scallops and Berkshires bacon, and wait-staff circulated trays of heavenly appetizers made with locally grown and harvested ingredients. Local cheeses and apple cider rounded out the menu and helped prime the crowd for the roundtable that lay ahead.
President Drew Faust called sustainable food “an art and a pleasure” in introducing the moderator, Humanities Center Director Homi Bhabha. Sustainability — that is, local production, processing, and distribution of food — “is no longer an option,” Bhabha said. “It is an obligation. It encourages us to nurture our resources and live within our means” by responding to local needs and interests while taking into account global concerns.
Bhabha spoke briefly before introducing the round-table panelists: Alice Waters, founder of Chez Panisse Restaurant and Chez Panisse Foundation and a longtime advocate of sustainable food; Josh Viertel ’01, co-director of the Yale Sustainable Food Project and president of Slow Food USA; and playwright, actress, and New York University professor of performance studies Anna Deavere Smith, who is on the advisory board of Waters’ foundation.
The discussion began with Bhabha’s request that each of the panelists share their earliest food memories. While Waters spoke of fruits and vegetables from her parents’ Victory Garden and Smith remembered the smells of her grandmother’s cooking, Viertel had a more unusual food memory. His parents cooked on a camp stove, he said, because their inexpensive apartment didn’t have a full-size stove. One day as baby Josh sat in his highchair, the camp stove leaked and lit some grocery bags on fire, sending flaming oranges rolling across the kitchen table. “I was completely delighted,” he says, “and I couldn’t understand why my parents didn’t share in that sentiment.” Even today, he said, he can conjure up the scent of burnt orange peel.
With food creating such strong, warm, and loving associations, Bhabha asked, what did the panelists think about the health issues surrounding eating in the United States, from obesity to anorexia? The question offered a perfect opportunity for Waters to describe her philosophy that Americans have a dysfunctional relationship with food disconnected from nature and culture. “We’ve never been educated in the way most everyone else on the planet has,” she said, “where food is woven into the fabric of life.” In Europe, for example, people gather around to share food, rather than, as Deveare Smith later pointed out, isolating themselves in front of the television. “We will never solve the health problems until we bring food back into the context of nature and culture,” Waters added.
That, of course, is exactly what the sustainability movement aims to do, and, as Bhabha noted, Waters has become a leader of that movement, particularly with her Edible Schoolyard program, which provides urban public school students with an organic garden and a kitchen classroom. She discovered, she said, that when the kids grow the food and cook it, they all want to eat it — even if it’s, say, kale — out of a sense of pride. She told of one student who, on joining the program, said, “I’ve only been in the kitchen one day, but it’s been the greatest day of my life.”
“It’s as if they’ve been denied this context with nature and the beauty of nature,” she continued, “and it’s so rewarding. I’m hoping this can happen in every institution in this country.”
Harvard has launched a sustainable food initiative as has Yale, under Viertel, who said that at the program’s outset, there was “a lot of pushback” from students and even professors who thought they would be forced to eat brown rice and tofu. By the end of the first day, however, there was a line out the door and into the courtyard. “Make it good and let them come to it for that reason,” he said. He noted that while a university’s carbon footprint is reduced by large-scale sustainable food efforts, the more important impact is in educating students’ tastes for life — particularly at schools like Harvard and Yale, which produce leaders who will then go on to influence others and perhaps even national or international food policy.
When Bhabha cited the previous Sunday’s New York Times Magazine article by Michael Pollan linking food with national security, Waters agreed with the thesis but took a different tack: “There’s a set of values we all need to understand to share the planet together,” she said. “We need to know how to nourish ourselves and how to communicate with each other. Until we think about how we can live sustainably, no matter where we live on the planet, we will never begin to solve the problems of the world.”
Viertel pointed out the need to shift the discourse from one of values to one of rights. Food that’s good for you, good for the people who grow it, and good for the environment should be considered “a universal right,” he said.
“But it’s also a pleasure,” Waters said. “We’re not asking anyone to do something sacrificial.” Returning to those good smells and remembered tastes, she said, can really “change your life.”