Welcome to the burgeoning local food movement. By local, I do not mean the Bay Area, nor even the Stanford campus, but a certain bedroom in Synergy Cooperative House. In preparation for a recent room warming, my roommates and I took a trip to Common Ground, a nearby garden supply store. We picked up potting soil, lavender, chamomile, mint and thyme, and now the most exciting part of our room is a set of planter boxes hanging outside our third floor windows.
It was a pretty simple act and relatively inexpensive, too. Since they’re already outside in the sunshine, all the plants need is a little water. I like to think of our window boxes as a romantic statement in favor of local food. They emphasize my belief that, because of our campus culture of innovation, Stanford students are uniquely situated to begin advocating for more just and sustainable food practices.
It’s useful to step back from Stanford for a moment and remember the state of our national food systems. Several author-activists, including Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser, have detailed the problems associated with food and farming in America; these range from conventional agriculture’s obsessive reliance on fossil fuels to ongoing inequalities in access to nutritious, affordable, culturally appropriate food. The systemic nature of these challenges and disparities demands action at many different levels, spanning the extremely personal to the global.
Silicon Valley encourages a culture of innovation and rapid prototyping at Stanford, and these startup staples can be useful tools for improving our broken food systems. For example, a winter quarter class in the Institute of Design at Stanford (d.school), Designing for Sustainable Abundance, embraces the type of experimental design thinking that considers not only the environmental implications of our food choices, but also their power to affect our physical and emotional wellbeing. Last year, students in the course established a novel collaboration between the d.school, Stanford Dining and the Stanford Prevention Research Center to ideate, prototype and implement strategies to reduce meat consumption in dining halls. This research highlights another carefully cultivated Stanford characteristic: collaboration.
The problems in our food systems are multifaceted, ranging from the biophysical to the socio-cultural, but food activists often neglect to collaborate or even recognize the deeper issues of poverty, race, access and power that allow hunger and food inequalities to persist in America. To address these problems, we need multi-level solutions that recognize the economic, environmental and social justice framework in which food activism is situated. Stanford faculty and students are beginning to do this through an emphasis on interdisciplinary approaches to change.
This past fall, Stanford hosted its second annual Food Summit, which was attended by over 400 scholars and activists. These summits, spearheaded by Dr. Christopher Gardner of the Stanford Medical School, brought together individuals from each of Stanford’s seven different schools. They even featured undergraduates, such as Janani Balasubramanian ’12, who established a new ASSU Food Cabinet this year.
Both Balasubramanian and Gardner are working to garner institutional support for the food movement at Stanford. There are already many indications of this institutional momentum toward establishing a curriculum and culture around food at Stanford — row house and dining hall gardens, a dedicated Farm Manager designing a new on-campus education farm, a Sustainable Food Program Manager working to bring more real food to the dining halls and even the newly-formed Stanford Intuitive Eating Group.
The opportunities for student engagement in this movement are countless. There are farm workdays, gleaning groups, nutrition education programs in East Palo Alto, cooking workshops and a whole host of student groups from the Stanford Farm Project to the Stanford Project for Hunger. With Chez Panisse and the People’s Grocery just across the Bay, Stanford is in the hub of the sustainable food movement, and because of the University’s dedication to collaboration and innovative, interdisciplinary solutions, Stanford students are uniquely empowered to achieve change. It could be as simple as planting some thyme outside your dorm room.
Think you might want to set up your own window garden? Ask Jenny for tips at jrempel “at” stanford “dot” edu.