Sustainable Food: Could Bennington Do It?

By Mike Goldin '14

The campus-wide Aramark conversations have sparked serious discussion about topics previously confined to meetings of the Bennington Sustainable Food Project; where our food comes from and what sustainability means in our context have moved to the forefront of the campus’ consciousness. Defining sustainability is wildly complex, however, and sourcing food locally is almost inevitably expensive. The BFP reached out to a number of experts from Middlebury to Portland, Oregon to learn more and try to answer a pressing question: what would it take to make local, sustainable dining happen at Bennington?

Money, Transparency & Hard Work

By most accounts, Middlebury College in Vermont does an admirable job of sourcing 20% of its food locally. Stu Fram, a senior at Middlebury and founding member of Eat Real—a student group working to improve Middlebury’s food system—thinks the College can do better, but notes what stands in their way. “Local food, generally speaking, is more expensive,” Fram says, and notes that a recent audit of Middlebury’s food purchasing found that with a few exceptions (such as apples, which are abundant in Vermont), most foodstuffs are on the order of 1.5 times more expensive to purchase locally; 20% of Middlebury’s food, by volume, comes from within 250 miles, but that 20% of volume comprises 32% of their food budget. Bennington isn’t a wealthy school, but money is less than the entire picture—supply chain transparency is of paramount importance as well. 

A Bennington student exhibits biomass power as an alternative to fossil fuels. the carbon footprint of food systems is an important component in gauging their sustainability.

Alison Dennis ‘94 is the Executive Director of the Center for Global Leadership in Sustainability at Portland State University, a Bennington alum and will be on campus as a CAPA Fellow beginning this Fall. She has extensive experience working to make large-scale food systems function sustainably, and notes that making it easy “for everybody in the supply chain to take an active interest in [an institution’s] sustainable food supply goals,” and then making clear “what their roles are in bringing those goals to bear” are key challenges in developing sustainable supply chains. The difficulty is that supply chains are extremely complex more often than not, and food will travel between multiple parties on the farm-to-plate voyage. For any institution, purchaser transparency is step one to unravelling the rest of the supply chain.

At Middlebury, students work with a sympathetic administration and management team in their dining hall to do exactly this kind of tracking. Aramark has been hazy on what exactly it will and won’t do in regards to cooperating in this kind of work, but Fram sees potentially systemic problems in that kind of relationship—“I think its really hard when you’re doing it with an external entity, because I’m sure that they have their own means of operating—their own producers and their own distributors that they go through and they use. In that regard, I think its tough just because they have a business model that I’m sure is financially sufficient for them, and to change Bennington’s food system, if Bennington’s food system is dependent on Aramark, then that would require probably switching the way that Aramark functions, which is a whole other systemic approach.”

What Can Bennington Students Do?

Environmental studies faculty member Valerie Imbruce says that while “local becomes the antidote to the global or national food system precisely because there is [so] little transparency in supply chains, it doesn't mean distance supply chains are always unethical or unsustainable.” Tracking them is the real difficulty, and Fram elaborates: “It’s something that can be done, but its not as easy as labelling each item in the dining hall and being able to see how many miles its travelled, because not only are their multiple ingredients in each dish, but in many cases the ingredients aren’t always purchased from the same producer.”

Dennis notes that in spite of everything, students have a great opportunity right now to play an active role, and recommends beginning by “identifying what food issues are most important and uniquely important to the Bennington student body and broader Bennington community” as well as actively interfacing with administrators as “creative partners” in stewarding in the Aramark relationship. “In my experience working with big food companies,” Dennis says “the clearer I can be about my goals, the easier it is for them to rise up and help me achieve those goals. Food service and food industry people are very customer service focused, so the clearer I can be as a customer about my goals and ideals, the more they can help me understand the practicalities of that and help me make decisions to bring my vision to fruition.”

Why does it matter? Dennis has a good elevator speech ready to go: “Sustainable food system development is important because it is unreasonable for us to expect that we will be able to have a healthy society and a healthy population when our food is produced in unhealthy and environmentally damaging ways. We can’t be healthy people if we don’t have access to fresh, healthy food.”

Malia Guyer-Stevens