The Unintended Impacts of Food Choices


This January, the Office of Sustainability partnered with the Dickey Center for International Understanding to host a dinner for 40 students participating in the Dickey Center’s Great Issues Scholars program.  The event served as an opportunity for students to learn and reflect on their personal relationship with food, their perceptions of food “buzzwords,” as well as the environmental, social, economic, and political impacts of corporate, intergovernmental, and individual food choices.

The students’ first interaction with food began with the food they put on their plate. Thanks to Coventry Catering in White River Junction, VT, students enjoyed  a menu featuring local and conventionally grown produce, and organic, farm raised, and vegan ingredients.  The purpose of this exercise was to physically demonstrate the complexities that arise with food choices. Is a vegan dish that contains internationally-sourced, conventionally produced ingredients better than a dish made with local, humanely-raised beef?  The answer, as with many sustainability questions, depends.

During the course of the event students discussed what eating practices they believed were environmentally friendly.  Not surprisingly, many students indicated their beliefs were heavily influenced by popular media.  The students, a group of 37 freshmen and 3 sophomore mentors, were surprised to learn that some of the buzzwords that defined their perceptions, such as local and cage-free, either had no legal definition or were ambiguously defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.  The young scholars worked collaboratively to confront the reality that many of the food choices they supported actually had unintended negative environmental impacts.  One group discussed the implications of being a vegan and eating locally in water-scarce California.  Students confronted the situational discord of the moral motivation of veganism and the environmental impacts of growing in a resource-constrained region.

Beyond food production, many interesting discussions occured around issues of human exploitation in the global agricultural system -- an issue that has plagued the United States throughout its history as an agricultural producer from slavery to exploitation of seasonal migrant workers today.  The economic, social, and political impacts of nearly all of the food we eat, are vast and stem from potential inequalities relating to farmer compensation and work conditions. For many students, thinking about these broader implications of their daily food choices was an important learning opportunity. 

Though the reality of the complex global food system was a bit daunting to students, our hope was to leave students with short and long-term actionable solutions. In the short term, to talk to their peers, friends, and family about food choices and the impacts of our individual decisions and to read and learn more.  Being aware of the realities, even if one is not able to immediately avoid them, makes a big difference.  In the long term, we encourage students to “go change the world.”  Be the policy maker, lawyer, or judge that is able to make the legislative changes needed.  Students can also utilize Dartmouth resources such as courses in Anthropology, Geography, and Environmental Studies or visit the O-Farm to learn how to sustainably grow their own food.  It was a pleasure to partner with the Dickey Center and we are excited to see students thinking about food in a new light and looking to make more intentional decisions.

Written by Denielle Harrison, Fellow in the Office of Sustainability

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