When mealtime rolls around at the UW-Madison campus, 42,000 students empty their wallets and feed their appetites. But what are these students putting on their plates? Are they filling them with produce from the Dane County Farmers' Market, with local cheeses, with apples that haven't fallen too far from the tree? Michael Pollan's manifesto In Defense of Food was the pick for the all-campus read in 2009, but did the book's tagline - "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants" - dissuade college students from pursuing a typical diet of Pop-Tarts and ramen noodles?
"During the summer, I cooked for myself all the time, says sophomore Richelle Harris, "but it's hard to find the time during the school year." Laura Bechard, also a sophomore, likes to cook, but "it's usually just something simple and inexpensive like pasta and sautéed vegetables." They are representative of many of their peers.
Food can fit awkwardly into the lives of UW-Madison students with packed schedules and tight budgets. But there are a few places on campus where food takes center stage. These are the places where food isn't fast, it's an event; where it's not easy, it's an occasion; and where it's not just satisfying, it's absolutely delicious.
FH King Student Farm
What's on the plate: Homemade kimchee and vegetable dumplings
Every Friday during growing season, a line begins to form just before 1 p.m. in the heart of the UW-Madison campus. Students and community members gather on the Library Mall bearing baskets and bags of every sort, patiently awaiting the distribution of...free vegetables. These aren't just any vegetables. They're organic vegetables, grown by students on a plot not more than three miles from Library Mall. The line is for nothing other than the weekly Harvest Handouts program put on by FH King Students for Sustainable Agriculture.
Founded in 1979, FH King is perhaps the oldest campus group with a focus on food and sustainability. All of its undertakings are centered on its two-acre, volunteer-run farm on the fringe of the Eagle Heights Community Gardens. A 15-minute bike ride from the heart of campus leads to an expansive field filled during the growing season with lush gardens, motivated gardeners, artistic beds of flowers and an unimaginable array of produce.
It's a breath of fresh air for students who typically go to class, sleep and eat all within a half-mile radius of the intersection of University Avenue and Park Street. Fortunately, FH King is dedicated to making the fruits (and vegetables) of this bit of nature more accessible to students through Harvest Handouts.
Harvest Handouts runs every Friday during the growing season, usually from June through mid-October. The produce, which ranges from bunches of fragrant herbs to tomatoes to kohlrabi, is free because, as a registered student organization, FH King is required to give back in some way to the college community. "Plus," adds active FH King member and former program director Mark Sandberg, "students are essentially already paying for the produce through university segregated fees."
Students are allowed to take as much produce as they want; FH King only asks that students bring bags in which to carry their selections, and that they take no more than they can realistically use.
Interest in FH King's programs, especially Harvest Handouts, has grown immensely in the past couple years. "When the program started in 2007, we would usually have some produce left at the end of the day," says Sandberg. "This year, all that was left were a few wilted leaves of kale that had fallen to the ground." There are over 700 names on the group's email list and an estimated 100 members who participate in the FH King activities frequently.
The students who staff the booth give advice on cooking less familiar vegetables and ask students to share their ideas in return. "We've gotten feedback on everything from great ways to cook collard greens, to a woman from China who used our produce to make vegetable dumplings," says Sandberg.
Besides Harvest Handouts, FH King operates a community-supported agriculture program that enables 20 families from Eagle Heights to access quality produce at about half the cost of a typical CSA share. Additionally, FH King hosts workshops and shows movies related to sustainable agriculture.
New this past summer was a bike and compost program, in which students collect compost from the downtown grocery store Madison Fresh Market and bike it back for use in the gardens. Contingent on finding the funds to purchase more bike trailers, this project will likely grow next summer to collect compost from local housing co-ops.
"The beauty of our gardens is that they offer a safe environment for students to experience and learn about growing things," says Sandberg. "As long as we have enough food for our CSA shares, the only risk we run is having less to give away at Harvest Handouts."
Though students are active in FH King in many different ways, Sandberg feels most are attracted because they're excited about learning ways in which they can be self-sufficient. "How many people in all of history have not been growing their own food?" Sandberg asks. "Very, very few. People become involved with FH King because it feels good; it feels human. Whether a student spends a day in our gardens or simply attends a workshop, it's a very gratifying experience."
For more information about FH King, visit fhkingstudentfarm.com.
What's on the plate: Food for thought
While food is most often seen outside classrooms - in the hands of students walking to class or lounging in the hall - there are occasions when it takes prominence within.
Jack Kloppenburg teaches Environmental Studies 113 every spring, a class required for students interested in earning the Nelson Institute's environmental studies certificate. A unit of this class is dedicated to addressing food sustainability. Lectures introduce students to ideas like food miles, confined-area feeding operations and monocultures. "I like to show my students that whatever we put in our mouths can lead to all kinds of things," says Kloppenburg. "Food is a wonderful entry point to agricultural, social and physical issues."
Kloppenburg encourages students to participate in one of several farm work days organized through the course. Students travel to local farms and experience firsthand the work that goes into producing the food they eat every day. "We're all learning all the time," explains Kloppenburg, but he feels it has the most impact "when we can use our hands and our hearts to do so, not just our heads."
Courses in the food science department, of course, address food in a practical way. In Food Service Operations, students spend three class periods in the university's food commissary in a series of hands-on labs. Course instructor and senior lecturer of food science Monica Theis feels the labs "enable students to get a glimpse of the actual work involved with food production on a larger scale." Students spend lab rotations working with university staff in five areas: receiving, hot food production, ingredient prep, salad/sandwich prep and pastry.
Lauren Graber, a senior majoring in dietetics, took this course to learn more about the processes involved with her job in a café with heavy lunchtime traffic. "The class has helped me really understand all the work that goes into what we eat. There's a lot of prep work going on that most of us don't realize."
Other food-related courses include Foodways, a class in the folklore department that investigates human expression through food, and World Vegetable Crops, a horticulture course that explores vegetables' historical and environmental impact.
Slow Food UW
What's on the plate: Manakish flatbread, fattouch salad, chickpea balila, chicken paprika
As I descend into the basement of the Crossing church, I'm met with pungent aromas that remind me of my favorite Indian restaurant. An open room set with countless tables and chairs gives way to a kitchen in which numerous students intently chop garlic, stir pots of curry, and fry potatoes. Soon I sit to enjoy a meal with about 100 others at one of Slow Food UW's weekly family dinner nights.
Slow Food UW, a local chapter of the international Slow Food movement (and one of only 40 campus chapters), is a student organization focused on bringing people together to appreciate the environmental, economic and cultural aspects of food. In short, it's a protest against fast food.
UW grad student Genya Erling started the group in 2007 after attending a Slow Food conference in Italy. She wanted to bring the values of good, clean, fair food closer to campus, and founded the chapter with a focus on cooking weekly dinners with a small group of friends. Though it was only the third campus chapter in the U.S., Erling wasn't the only one with an interest in eating well. In a short time the group outgrew the small campus kitchen they were using and moved operations to the Crossing church's kitchen. Family dinner nights are still at the heart of Slow Food UW, and today draw crowds as large as 160.
Each family dinner night is led by a guest chef who is assisted by three Slow Food UW interns and several student and community volunteers. Guest chefs range from individual students with a passion for cooking, to student organizations looking for ways to reach a wider community, to professional chefs like Tory Miller of L'Etoile and Jonny Hunter of Underground Kitchen.
Sophomore Richelle Harris started volunteering at the family dinner nights last fall. She enjoys cooking for herself and eating healthily, and was sparked by the environmental issues emphasized at the dinners. "Since joining," says Harris, "I've started checking out more of the local markets and looking up what's actually in season."
For Laura Bechard, also a sophomore, coming to family dinner nights is all about taste. "It's become clear that the more time you put into making your food, the better it tastes," she says. "I can microwave a cup of soup in minutes, but when I come here I get a variety of well-prepared, delicious dinners."
Today, Slow Food UW takes on other projects besides the family dinner nights. The members host occasional workshops (like canning or truffle making) and volunteer at community events like Bike the Barns and the Food for Thought Festival. Several students intern through Slow Food UW each semester with initiatives that bring more local foods to campus dining halls or increase awareness of cultural communities like south Madison.
Membership coordinator Jenna Liberman says that interest in the group has grown a lot, and fast. One big draw is the interest in eating local, sustainable food; another is the sense of community Slow Food UW offers. "People want to be part of a group and something bigger than themselves," says Liberman. "Coming to dinner is easy, it's not a big commitment, and everyone loves a cheap, really good dinner."
Slow Food UW aims to open a slow food-focused cafe this coming September; it will run a pilot launch on Wednesdays this spring. Visit their website for more information.
University Dining Facilities
What's on the plate: Local scrambled eggs, local bacon and local hash browns
Dorm food. Every day nearly 17,000 students roam through one of five UW dining halls in search of an ideal meal. The items they're choosing from are of little surprise to anyone who's dined cafeteria-style before. Staples on a typical dinner menu include hamburgers, breaded chicken fillets and grilled cheese sandwiches. But because this campus is in a city known for its progressive trends, I wondered where the local, healthy, organic options were. I found just what I was looking for on a Tuesday night in Liz Waters Dining Hall.
It's busier than usual in the dining hall tonight. Students are filling their trays with roasted squash, pulled pork sandwiches, sweet potato and beet chips and cranberry yogurt parfaits. This is one of University Housing Dining Services' "special event" meals featuring a menu of locally sourced foods. These meals are made with ingredients from food distributor Simply Wisconsin that typically come from within a 150-mile radius of Madison.
Local meals are not a constant in any of the dining halls, but it's possible to eat one somewhere on campus several times throughout the week. This is an adjustment from last year, when local meals were served strictly in one dining hall once a week.
"The meals have been really well received," says assistant director of Dining and Culinary Services Barb Phelan. "We sell a lot of local meals when they're offered, and students tell us everything tastes really good."
If this is true, why couldn't a student be guaranteed to have a local option available at any dining hall and any time of the day? Phelan says one obstacle is the need to cater to demand. While many who support the local meals come because they care about issues of sustainability, there are still others who will grab the dishes simply because they're there. "It would be helpful to do thorough surveying to assess whether eating local is a true value of most of our customers. We need to do this to decide how to best move forward with our local offerings."
While local meals don't yet abound in campus dining facilities, there are signs of a growing interest in sustainability here and elsewhere on campus. The UW Housing Dining and Culinary Services, UW Athletics, UW Hospital and the Wisconsin Union send four to six tons of pre-consumer compost to the West Madison Agricultural Research Station annually. Dining Services will begin composting post-consumer waste this spring.
Plans for Union South, slated to open this April, include Harvest Grains, a café that will feature meals crafted from local CSA shares. Union staff also hopes to designate Union South as a CSA pickup point for students and community members.
"We've made a lot of progress," says Julie Luke, associate director of Dining and Culinary Services, "but of course there's still more to be made." The UW received an "A" for its sustainability efforts last fall in the Sustainable Endowment Institute's annual College Sustainability Report Card; however, the university was awarded a "B" in the food subcategory.
Good Food Cart
What's on the plate: Sweet Thai chili wrap with tofu, spicy chicken tortilla soup and a whole-grain dark chocolate chip cookie
Madison's food-cart culture offers eaters on the go an array of lunchtime options every weekday. But if it weren't for a stroke of genius recent UW graduate Melanie Nelson had in 2009, there wouldn't be a single cart with an explicit focus on "good food."
"I wanted to be 'the change you wish to see in the world,'" says Nelson, "and the change I wanted to see was an option for fast, affordable, delicious, healthy food." Good Food, which has been vending on Johnson Street between Mills and Brooks since April 2009, offers a menu of gourmet salads and wraps made with whole grains (all $5), rotating soup options for vegans and meat-eaters alike ($4), and baked goods made with whole grains and flax. You won't want to ask for fries and a Coke to go with your meal here; Good Food instead offers fresh fruit, granola bars and 100% juices.
The Good Food cart loves Mother Nature, too - all food is served in compostable containers and made with organic ingredients when possible. Some ingredients are locally sourced, like the Madison-made Yumbutter peanut butter used for the dressing in the sweet Thai chili wrap or salad.
While Nelson is a self-proclaimed health-food nut, she remembers that eating well was always a struggle during her years as an undergrad. "I ate a lot of bread and peanut butter sandwiches, and whatever else was fast, cheap and easy."
With Good Food, students now have the option to buy a meal that's not only fast, cheap and easy, but also delicious - and word has it they do. This past vending season, Nelson built a crowd of regulars and a loyal following on Facebook, where she announced menu changes daily. The cart was ranked the number one new cart in the city's annual food cart review, which means this spring we can look forward to seeing Good Food on Library Mall weekdays and on the Capitol Square during Farmers' Market Saturdays.
GreenHouse Learning Community
What's on the plate: Mhammarah spread, stuffed kale leaves, chicken Marrakech, rice pudding with orange blossom water
On the far west end of campus in a tucked-away dorm lounge, nearly 30 students mingle around tables laid with white cloths and topped with goblets of water and carafes of hot mint tea. Soon they will sit to enjoy a free, professionally made Middle Eastern dinner. Later they will engage in a discussion about sustainability with the UW chef who helped prepare the meal and a UW professor of community and environmental sociology. What is this unexpected affair, and who are the lucky students who get to partake? Welcome to GreenHouse and its first-ever Global Meals Night.
GreenHouse is one of six learning communities on the UW-Madison campus. A learning community is a dorm in which students and staff share an interest in an explicit idea (such as entrepreneurship or international studies) and partake in related extracurricular activities throughout the year. GreenHouse, located in the campus's lakeshore residential area, is focused on living sustainably.
The idea for the dorm, which is in its inaugural year, arose when professor of community and environmental sociology and current GreenHouse director Jack Kloppenburg and several of his colleagues were brainstorming ways in which values of sustainability could be successfully promoted to incoming freshmen. The concept of a green-focused learning community was well received, and planning soon got under way.
"We wanted the GreenHouse to create a sense of community," explains Kloppenburg, "and one way we were able to do that is through food. It's a major pillar of the ways in which students think about sustainability."
One of the first projects involved in creating GreenHouse was remodeling the kitchen in the dorm this learning community would occupy. The new kitchen is big, fully equipped and well used, unlike most dorm kitchens, which require keys to enter and a trip to a commons area to check out any necessary frying pans or spatulas.
Not only do the 46 GreenHouse students have access to this revamped kitchen, but they have the option to join workshops and seminars centered on food, like Global Meals Night. Kathryn Ruh, a freshmen resident, felt this dinner was the most enjoyable GreenHouse event she's attended this year, topping even a cider-pressing event and a canoe trip down the Yahara River. "I love talking about food and sustainability, and being able to do it with others at the dinner tonight was a perfect combination."
Ruh, who wasn't very familiar with ideas of sustainability before coming to UW-Madison, appreciates opportunities like these in which she can take the time to really enjoy her food. "The more I enjoy what I'm eating, the more questions I want to ask about what's in it and how to make it. If more of us ask more questions, we might be able to live in a more sustainable world."
Ruth Young is a UW-Madison junior majoring in English and Environmental Studies.