The UW-Madison campus is in a city that hosts the nation's largest producer-only farmer's market, is home to three grocery co-ops, nearly 50 community gardens, and more than 200 organizations working on food or sustainability. You'd think it would be easy for students here to find a variety of local and sustainable foods at campus grocery stores and dining facilities.
But in fact, as far as food goes, it's not easy being green at UW-Madison. Students must put extra time into finding something beyond an average mystery meat sandwich, packaged snacks and high-fructose beverages - all available at every campus corner. It's time for that to change.
As the 40th anniversary of the first Earth Day approaches, it's time to reflect on our food choices and how they affect the environment. The average meal in America travels 1,500 miles from farm to plate. These 1,500 miles mean more CO2 entering the atmosphere, more packaging, and more chemicals being sprayed so that the Florida orange will still look and taste like an orange when it arrives on campus.
In a major farming state, and in a city with resources like Sustain Dane and the Dane County Farmer's Market, students shouldn't have to leave campus to find an apple grown in Wisconsin, or a sandwich with meat from a farm that treats their animals ethically. If universities are all about opportunities and options, then I want to be able to choose what I'm putting on my plate, too.
Students can lead the way to change simply by creating demand. For example, ten years ago when students started to demand vegetarian options, salad bars and hummus sandwiches gradually starting showing up in campus cafeterias. When we decided we liked coffee, we got so much coffee that it's hard to walk more than ten feet without being tempted by its distinct aromas.
That there are some local and organic options available today shows it's possible for campus facilities to offer these foods. But if we want an array of locally grown apples, instead of just a handful at the bottom of a pile, we have to start buying those apples. Being able to consume local and sustainable food won't be convenient until students create a demand for it.
The recent opening of Madison Fresh Market demonstrates that demand can also be created simply by making different products available. Students didn't flock to the market when it opened because there was nowhere else to buy food. They flocked because they were excited about new options.
Students would likely flock to local and sustainable options, too. If UW administrators made the display of locally grown apples bigger and more noticeable, students would buy more of them, more often.
According to the Community Food Security Coalition, dining and food service personnel were the people most responsible for initiating the local or sustainable food programs that exist on college campuses today at 41% of the campuses that were part of the study.
The sustainable efforts that have been made in UW dining facilities should not be overlooked. You can always find local baked goods from People's Bakery in the dining halls, and occasionally a delicious dinner of RP's Madison-made pasta. The "special event" sustainable meals in the dining halls and at the Union are always well-run and well-supported.
However, UW administrators need to join the sustainable trends of Madison and become a model for other universities across the country. While the city of Madison was ranked the most sustainable mid-sized city by the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Princeton Review's recent "green" ratings for college campuses tied UW-Madison for last among the Big Ten schools. It's time for this to change, too.
The solution to offering more sustainable food options on campus will require collaboration. It's important for everyone - campus staff, students, community members - to remember that we're the only ones who can create change.
It's up to us to look at our dinner plates and consider where our meals come from, by what means the ingredients got to us, and what we might do to eat a greener meal in the future. Every sandwich we buy, every cup of coffee we brew, and every dinner we dig our forks into is a vote for nourishment both of self and of planet, and for our vision of tomorrow.
Ruth Young is a student at the UW-Madison's Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies. If you would like to contribute a guest post to TheDailyPage.com, please send a message for consideration.