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Stanford experts gather for ‘food summit’

Behind the lunch at Arrillaga Alumni Center on Wednesday — vegan squash patties with tomato chutney, smoked Alaskan salmon, wheat berry and rice salad was an event medical professor Chris Gardner believes was unprecedented: the gathering of experts from all seven of Stanford’s schools to talk, well, food.

A student rides the Blender Bike, a stationary bicycle that powers a blender. AGATHA BACELAR/The Stanford Daily

Gardner, a medical school professor, organized the “food summit” to prod interdisciplinary discussion of “some of the nation’s and the planet’s most challenging and important crises” and their implications for environment, health, industry and policy. But beyond the day’s agenda, which attracted 350 attendees, the event offered a snapshot of a maturing sustainable food movement at Stanford, where students’ interest has been on a steady upward climb for much of the last decade.

“There’s something here that resonates,” Gardner said. He described finding colleagues one by one who were working on food issues, first at the Woods Institute for the Environment, then in philosophy, then at Stanford Law School. The recent research on obesity and malnutrition in India, led by Jeremy Goldhaber-Fiebert of the Woods Institute, is a classic example of food’s interconnected nature, he said. Food-related health issues can involve food security, he said; in turn, food security can relate to climate change.

“People are starting to realize these things are connected,” Gardner said.

Experts from across the Stanford campus gathered on Wednesday to discuss food-related issues. AGATHA BACELAR/The Stanford Daily

Eric Montell, executive director of Stanford Dining, said the event was “a dream come true.” Dining faces challenges finding and building relationships with food producers who can meet Stanford’s sustainability criteria and the volume demands of Stanford’s 12,000 daily dining-hall meals, he said.

But “it’s an investment we believe in,” Montell said, pointing to Dining’s accumulation of food suppliers in Marin County, Salinas and Alaska as a sign of progress.

Politics weighed on the minds of some Stanford experts on Wednesday, a day after midterm elections signaled a Republican takeover of the U.S. House of Representatives. Political science professor Rob Reich Ph.D. ‘98, who taught the Sophomore College course “Food and Politics” in 2008, and law professor Buzz Thompson J.D. ‘76 both spoke on Wednesday, Thompson focusing on farm bill reform. The initial “basic issue” of the election results set to influence agricultural policy, Reich said, will be the new Republican chairperson of the House Agriculture Committee.

Meanwhile, back on the Farm, Sarah Wiederkehr spoke about the surge of interest she has experienced since the University created her position as farm educator in 2008. At the time, Earth Systems administrators said their classes were undergoing a “population explosion,” and the number of Earth Systems majors was hitting a record high for the program.

“Classes are popping up left and right,” Wiederkehr said Wednesday. “I feel like things have really gone through the roof.”

The trend is not unique to Stanford, she said, adding that food-related health issues in the year of health care reform have only bolstered the nationwide conversation.

At Stanford, the community farm near Stock Farm Road where Wiederkehr teaches agriculture classes has become so popular that students and faculty last fall proposed a larger, two-acre farm along Campus Drive. But the proposal is “still on hold” while awaiting county permits, Wiederkehr said. The project is likely to begin this spring at the earliest.

The students pushing the project have made one big purchase while they wait: a tractor, a Kubota 3300 model they hope will move earth at the new farm. And as for the administration?

“Stanford is on board,” Wiederkehr said.

Contact Elizabeth Titus at etitus@stanford.edu.

About Elizabeth Titus

Elizabeth Titus was editor in chief of Volume 238 of The Stanford Daily, serving from July 2010 to January 2011. Contact her at elizabethmtitus@gmail.com.