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Green Food Movement Sparks Controversy On Campus and Off

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Last weekend, before a packed house at Baltimore's Enoch Pratt Library, Michael Pollan declared the recent surge in activist work and interest in food politics a "movement." As usual, Pollan had a lot of great things to say that night, but this piece stood out to me. Friends and colleagues and I have been talking about the local/sustainable/good food movement for years, but many writers have been reticent to pronounce it that, so it was exciting that he would venture out onto that limb, even if he qualified it, and rightfully so, as many smaller movements (toward food security movement, food safety, labor rights and so on).

Pollan went on to talk about how much of this movement is happening amongst youths on college campuses, another great point because, though there are food activists as young as fourth graders (who, in Wisconsin, recently attempted an "Eat-In" to protest school lunches), becoming politically active is something of a rite of passage for college students. There are tons of student groups doing amazing work on all of the food fronts, including the Real Food Challenge (see their video below, hat tip to Good Farm Movement) and the Student Farmworker Alliance. Slow Food also has chapters on many college campuses, and UNC Chapel Hill is home to FLO Food, as is UC Berkeley to the Society for Agriculture and Food Ecology (SAFE), which was founded by perhaps the country's most prolific and well known young farmer/activist, Severine von Tscharner Fleming, the head of the Greenhorns.

During my own undergrad years at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, which spanned from fall 1995 to fall of (ahem) 2004, I was assigned to read Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation. At the time, I'd been an on-again, off-again vegetarian for years, was growing my second garden and was hip to the idea of voting with my fork. I'd also waited tables throughout my college career, and was troubled by things like the fact that the waterfront restaurant where I worked sold crab from India. It would be five or so more years before I really started working on food issues, but had I never read that book, I'd have missed out on a valuable resource, one that confirmed a lot of my worries about our food system.

On the other side of the Cascade Mountains from Evergreen, Pollan's more contemporary book, The Omnivore's Dilemna, is the current subject of controversy at Washington State University, where it has been pulled from the school's "common reading" program. The bestseller is in the tradition of Schlosser's Fast Food Nation, and has no doubt had as much or more impact on Americans' eating habits. So it makes sense that a university with a large college of agriculture might come under political fire for assigning such a book, the possibility of which was the subject of this article in yesterday's Chronicle of Higher Education.

"Because this book deals with the food we eat today, it is likely to engender lively discussion and even disagreement," wrote one professor who had recommended it to the committee. "But discussion and disagreement are the bread and butter of academic discourse."

But it seems that discussion will not happen--at least not over The Omnivore's Dilemma as a common-reading selection. Michael Pollan's hard-hitting examination of industrial agriculture and the American diet has been dropped as the program's text.

This wouldn't be the first time big food, which gives to many of the country's leading agriculture programs (at South Dakota State University, where Monsanto Board member David Chicoine's recent appointment as university president is raising eyebrows, Monsanto has given around $400,000 for research grants and services over the past year or so), has thrown its moneyed weight around on campus. Just yesterday, Slow Food USA Blog reported that Virginia Tech Dining Services (VTDS), ranked #1 in campus food by the Princeton Review, was being pressured by agribusiness lobbying groups like the Virginia Farm Bureau to quit sourcing cage-free, locally produced eggs, and last year, Burger King hired unlicensed private detectives to spy on the Student Farmworker Alliance, the partner group of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, when the labor group focused its boycotting strategy on the industry giant.

Of course, students aren't the only food activists, nor are these the only groups to be targeted by big food. Just this week, Monsanto launched a counter campaign against the eye-opening new Participant film, Food Inc (in theaters June 12), proclaiming it biased and one-sided, after refusing to be interviewed for the film. But at a time when schools are scrambling for money, and they are -- earlier this month, WSU announced major budget cuts including to the agricultural research and extension departments -- educators may feel less inclined to rock the funding boat.

I'm not saying that WSU is directly funded by agribusiness -- my hunch is that corporate funding is mostly funneled through government groups anyway -- but the fact that much of WSU's research tends toward the biotechnical suggests a conflict of interest here. To be fair, WSU is also home to an organic program, but the controversy over Pollan's book clearly points to a fight over the hearts and minds of today's academics, tomorrow's farmers and potential activists. At the least, to pull Pollan's book from the common reading program may deny students the chance to debate his ideas.

As this year's seniors head for the graduation platform, here's hoping that next year's incoming freshmen, at WSU and elsewhere (but especially at state-funded institutions), get a chance to partake in that "bread and butter of academic discourse," even when it might upset the proverbial apple cart.

Originally posted on The Green Fork.

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