I mean that title in the positive sense of critique, like Kantian critique, intended to question so as to make better. I made note last month of a project some students here were doing, called “Is It Possible to Eat Sustainably at the University of Virginia?” This was the prompt:
Four Students set out to determine if it is possible to eat sustainably at UVA. Elizabeth will cover going vegetarian, Michael will cover going organic, Will will cover “The Six Dollar Limit”, and Avik will cover going local. The conclusions of all four of us will help determine if eating sustainably is a viable option here at the University of Virginia.
Today, The Atlantic Monthly‘s Food Channel has written an article about their experiment: “Good Food: Who Can Afford It?”
Rather than assume a static definition of “sustainable” eating, or assume that the definition is obvious and uncontested, Avik, Elizabeth, Michael, and Will carved out four variations of what a sustainable eating pattern could be. Then they went out to find out how it could work. Their purpose was to identify if and where it is possible to eat sustainably at UVA under their particular variation of the term. As an experiment, they hoped to identify opportunities to promote more sustainable eating options and speak to the difficulties one encounters in doing so.
It was recon. They questioned sustainable eating in a college town. When last I posted, they had just started. A month on, they’ve written quite a lot.
As author James McWilliams interprets it in The Atlantic piece, which itself is about questioning what we’re in for when we pursue sustainable eating, “The outcomes, captured over the course of a week in intelligently turned blogs kept by [the] students, reveal both the promises and perils of eating an environmentally sound diet in a progressive college town. By extension, they offer telling insights into the future of an idea–sustainable eating–that promises to be one of this century’s most relevant.”
McWilliams read the blog entries and identified cost as a consistent. That doesn’t surprise me. As I noted to him, it’s a fair observation. What I liked about the experiment, though, was that it indeed helped identify opportunities for fostering more sustainable eating on and near campus, in a way that could help reduce costs by reconfiguring prices structures based on local economies. For example, the “availability” versus “proximity” chart above shows the two lines crossing at “The Corner,” which is just off campus. The Corner is an area with shops and restaurants, with bars and bookstores, beside the med school, across the way from Jefferson’s famous Rotunda.
One conclusion from their experiment, then, was to note that The Corner offers the most likely chance for achieving that balance of availability and proximity for college students (in this case it was the “organic” version of sustainable). If the town council, state agencies, the USDA, the Virginia Dept. of Ag, or non-profit local food groups wanted to help shape new policies to make sustainable eating in college more plausible (more affordable) then that might be a good place to do it. Tax incentives for businesses, subsidies, small business support structures, more avenues to connect local producers to restaurants and stores, farmer’s markets and co-ops. In fact, several ventures in Charlottesville are already doing this, including new dining service efforts toward sustainable dining, a new cafe on grounds that “includes items prepared largely from local, organic ingredients,” a Local Food Hub, the Jefferson Area Board for Aging (JABA), and a virtual marketplace, Virginia’s Bounty, that delivers local food to drop-off spots near campus.
The conclusion, then, was not that since a particular version of “sustainable” (local, organic, under $6, vegetarian) is expensive we shouldn’t work for it. The conclusion was that if its expensive, then that‘s the problem we need to address.