‘How Then Shall We Eat?’ opens conversation about sustainable dining

Hellen Wainaina (C’18) and LaToya McIntyre (C’20) share a laugh at ‘How Then Shall We Eat?’ Photo by Hayeon Ryou (C’23).

By Charlotte Suttee
Executive Staff

Green salad with goat cheese, pan fried squash with brewers yeast and tamari, artichoke and spinach risotto, wild mushroom bourguignon, Baker’s Guild biscuits, and for dessert, parsnip cake with molasses and cream cheese icing. This was the lovely plant-based meal Sewanee Dining staff prepared for How Then Shall We Eat?, a dinner and discussion about food and its future in Convocation Hall on January 29.

Food Literacy Program Manager Caroline Thompson invited everyone to help themselves to the buffet line as talk ensued. 

“Tonight, we come together to encourage you to identify what values are important to you when you think about what to put on your plate,” said Thompson. “We will hear stories from a few folks in our community that helped get us here. We hope that their stories can provide inspiration for you to reflect on your own values and also remind you that a small group of people is capable of great change.”

Professor Tam Parker’s story began with the first time she entered Monteagle’s Piggly Wiggly: “I was walking in the produce department and had to choke back tears… I think about where my food comes from and its cost to the global commons.”

The amount of processed and plastic-wrapped meat of the common grocery store is heart-breakingly excessive to conscious consumers. For many towns in the surrounding area, people may not have access to any produce at all.

“Lots of people have to shop at the Dollar Store. Dirt cheap calories,” said Parker. “There are on-going issues of food equity and justice.”

“Food goes beyond keeping our bodies alive—our food choices, or sometimes our lack of choice, affect our health, the environment, worker welfare, animal welfare, and our local and world economies,” said Thompson.

Just ten years ago, even the Sewanee dining hall was primarily serving food from boxes or cans and cooking potato pearls instead of real potatoes, and staff were paid a much lower wage. Aramark, the national food program Sewanee was contracted with, was not meeting the standards for food and job quality according to the University’s Sustainability Steering Committee.

McClurg “had no locally-sourced anything,” said Sewanee Food Service Director Rick Wright, who helped Sewanee transition to a self-operated food service. Wright read The Omnivore’s Dilemma along with first-year students who were required to read it upon matriculating, and he “realized an opportunity for change in Sewanee.”

“We took more possession of employment of the staff,” said Frank Gladu, special assistant to the Vice-Chancellor responsible for the Sewanee Village development project. “Every one of the employees was offered a job here at the University. They needed no validation, none of that, as long as they were in good standing. And not only were we going to hire, but across the board we gave them $1 more an hour.”

In 2011, Sewanee ditched the national program and began a new era with service and sustainability at its core. Wright helped to reboot the University farm and sought out local farmers to start sourcing food. Now 80% of the McClurg’s greens are locally sourced and half a million dollars have been raised in profit for farmers within the Sewanee food hub. 

To learn more about the many food practice changes enacted at this time, Food Working Group Report– March 2011 outlines all operations in extensive details, including composting, waste management, bottled water, vending machines, internships, etc.

“We were a for-profit dining hall, but now we’ve shifted the focus to education and sustainability,” said Wright. Programs and talks like How Then Shall We Eat? have been met with unprecedented support from students, faculty and staff, and residents. Sustainability at Sewanee continues to grow as people respect the natural world and recognize their inextricable connection to it.

“We are part of the system,” said Jess Wilson, owner and manager of Summer Fields and In Town Organics. She was part of the original How Then Shall We Eat? discussion and food working group on campus. 

“There is no such thing as a free meal,” said Wilson. She gave the congregation a moment to contemplate their ‘free’ dinner. The cost, at its most minimal level, belongs to the earth.

Wilson quotes Wendell Berry in Gift of Good Land: “‘To live, we must daily break the body and shed the blood of Creation. When we do this knowingly, lovingly, skillfully, reverently, it is a sacrament. When we do it ignorantly, greedily, clumsily, destructively, it is a desecration. In such desecration we condemn ourselves to spiritual and moral loneliness, and others to want.’”

Consumers can do good to acknowledge the terrestrial process and implications of food, and also the people who work intimately with the earth to grow it. “Getting to know local food producers is what made [Sewanee] home,” said Parker.

“Food also ties us together in community, ritual and celebration, and our cultural diversity is displayed in the dishes we prepare,” wrote the members of the Food Working Group in 2011. “Food must therefore lie at the core of our attempts to create a responsible campus community.”

By the time everyone had indulged in some parsnip cake, the discussion opened up to the guests. The panel speakers migrated back to their seats as murmurings of personal experience and collective action stirred around the tables. 

Within my small circle of discussion, Hoang Le (C’22) recalled how his mother used all parts of the chicken when cooking in Vietnam; bone marrow would be used for broth and his grandma would eat the head of the chicken. Most American grocery stores sell deboned, beheaded, and neatly proportioned parts that hardly resemble the animal they came from. If the Sewanee Food Program switched imported meat in exchange for local livestock, they would also have the opportunity to serve more of each animal.

Another student proposed that the dining hall could serve locally seasonal foods, an idea met with snaps and claps of approval. This design implies that McClurg’s dining options would be more limited day to day and varied season to season, and such an effort would support the local economy and sharply cut carbon emissions.

Parker recommended converting 58 local acres into farmland, the amount of crop-yielding land needed to sustain Sewanee’s population, and plowing over the football fields for the cause.

“This environment is a real-life test of something others will be attracted to and try to replicate,” said Gladu. While the University is a role-model for other schools, there is room for growth on the Plateau. “If Sewanee doesn’t do it, then who will?” said Gladu.

How Then Shall We Eat? resumes February 25 at 6pm, and every last Tuesday of the month. Until then, students Madeline Ramon (C’23) and Elizabeth DeWeteter (C’22) have established a Community Table by the windows in the section of McClurg people may recognize as the ‘non-frat’ side. The Community Table is another opportunity to continue conversation and community over shared meals.