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The Season for Sustainability

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Last Wednesday, Huffington Post College ran an article in its news column from the New Haven Independent by staff writer Jay Dockendorf, "Is this tomato 'sustainable'?" The article reports on Yale Dining's new initiative, the Uncommon Market, and how its inaccurate labels tout fruits and vegetables from across the continent as "local." The New Haven Independent was right to take Yale Dining to task for this gaffe; this sort of mislabeling is a mistake that requires immediate action. It's heartening to see so many students and community members taking a stand about the origins of the food they eat, and it's a lesson that deserves attention from policymakers and leaders around the nation.

Uncommon Market is indeed, uncommon: at the market, Yale Dining sells produce at wholesale prices, and turns over its institutional purchasing deals to the individual's advantage. At wholesale prices, cherries get closer to the price of Cheetos, and overall, this innovation is good for increasing the consumption of healthy foods. It's an interesting model -- one I like in the absence of larger systematic reform -- for increasing access to real food.

Yale Dining has a cadre of collaborators promoting good food in New Haven. The Yale Farm is part of the Sustainable Food Project, a nationally recognized program, founded by Yale president Richard C. Levin and nationally-recognized chef Alice Waters, that leads educational initiatives about sustainable food and agriculture, launched Yale's sustainable food program, and happens to run a one-acre market garden. The farm doesn't sell at Uncommon Market. Our produce -- thousands of pounds of sustainably grown fruits and vegetables -- gets sold at the local CitySeed Farmers market. CitySeed markets are producer-only markets: you must have grown it to sell it. In my mind, this is the best type of market, as it closes the distance between farmer and consumer, and returns value to the farmer whose hard work is feeding us.

What inspired me to write -- beyond my own dismay -- was the fury this provoked in the community. While people want inexpensive food (who doesn't want a deal?), they want honesty in labeling first. They are willing to prioritize local and sustainable purchasing for the multitude of benefits that come with the increased prices. It's encouraging to see the consumer stand up against "greenwashing," the skewing of labels and marketing to falsely promote products as environmentally sound.

Yale Dining missed the boat on transparency at the market. This was a mistake, and I expect that Executive Director of Yale Dining Rafi Taherian, a long-time sustainability advocate and the force behind this market, will get things back on track. But as students from around the nation -- from New Haven to Nebraska to Washington D.C. -- champion sustainable food, institutions need to hold themselves to high standards: there is no accountability system for sustainable food in the way that there is for federal grants, for example. There are three questions we need to ask when defining sustainability: is the system returning value to the farmer and the laborer? Health to the land? And both goodness and health to the consumer?

Once I got over the mislabeled tomatoes and took a step back, I recognized that the nation needs a new set of standards. Organic is a starting point, but a LEED-like system for food could give precise meaning to terms like local or sustainable, and prevent greenwashing. If you asked me about my top priority for the next Farm Bill -- scheduled to move through Congress in 2012 -- it would be to address the questions about limited supply that this article touches on. These are the issues that need help in the Farm Bill: we can increase funding for specialty crops (the things we actually eat, like fruits and vegetables) over subsidization for corn and soybeans, and support innovative programs like the Uncommon Market to increase access to real food.

Melina Shannon-DiPietro is a co-founder and Executive Director of the Yale Sustainable Food Project. You can read more about the Sustainable Food Project at www.yale.edu/sustainablefood or find the YSFP on Facebook here.

This article has been cross-posted in The Atlantic.

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