Food for Thought

A surge of interest in local, organic, and sustainable food is giving Emory a taste for something fresh / Paige P. Parvin 96G

Just a ten-minute drive from the Emory campus, near a busy road crowded with fast-food restaurants and gas stations, a five-acre garden stretches serenely under the Georgia sun. Neat rows of organic broccoli, cabbage, and fava beans await harvest, while shitake mushrooms germinate in the shade on specially arranged logs nearby.

Gaia Gardens is one of a growing number of community gardens springing up in unexpected spaces around sprawling metro areas. There are several within twenty miles of the University; Gaia Gardens counts among its members some fifteen with ties to Emory, including Jennifer Hoffner 91C, who lives in the East Lake Commons community housing that adjoins the garden, and Margaret “Molly” McGehee, a PhD candidate in American studies in the Institute of Liberal Arts, whose husband, Daniel Parson (with McGehee, below right), is the East Lake gardener. (Parson’s sister, Nia, also graduated from Emory in 1996.)

Parson came to the farm three years ago armed with a master’s degree in plant and environmental science and a natural zeal for organic community gardening. He keeps about 1.5 of the five acres growing a range of organic produce, while the rest replenishes itself under cover crops. Each year Parson sells fifty-five memberships to the garden, entitling members to weekly pick-ups of fresh produce for thirty weeks of the year. Community members built the tractor barn that houses his equipment and designed the rain garden that helps rainwater replenish the soil.

“People need to understand the distinction between mass-marketed organics and small organic farms,” Parson says, appraising his fava bean plants with a practiced eye. “Obviously, most of our food travels a great distance to us, but organic food often travels even farther. Local farmers shorten the food chain.”

Hoffner, who grew up in the suburbs of Miami,
majored in anthropology at Emory and earned a master’s degree in landscape architecture from the University of Georgia. She has a longtime interest in farming and sustainability and has worked on several farms herself. “There’s something about eating something Daniel has grown in your backyard that connects you to the food in a whole new way,” she says.

Many Americans seem to be hungry for a new connection to food. There is a growing national appetite for knowledge about what we eat—where it comes from, how it’s made, and what it does to our bodies and to the environment. Their curiosity fed by media headlines, CNN specials, spinach scares, and best-sellers such as Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, consumers are taking a fresh look at their plates and finding their choices more complicated—and often less appetizing—than they once believed.

Last fall, a core group of interested Emory faculty, administrators, and students (including graduate student McGehee) formed to explore some of the key issues surrounding food. Dubbed simply the “food and health reading group,” their lively lunchtime conversations were sponsored by Emory’s Science and Society program and led by Professor of Anthropology Peggy Barlett (opposite, left, shown with Christy Cook of Sodexho), faculty liaison to the Office of Sustainability Initiatives, whose longtime study of the broad impact of food production and consumption is widely known around the University. “One thing the group had to grapple with is how we understand the variety in the ways food is produced,” Barlett says.

For instance, “conventional” production generally means large- and medium-scale farms that use chemical pesticides and chemical fertilizers, produce mainly large fields of one species, and are highly specialized, Barlett says. These farms typically use hybrid, improved seeds and some use genetically modified seeds. Conventional producers of livestock are mostly large-scale confinement operations and use antibiotics and hormones in feed.

Many consumers are beginning to understand that buying “organic” food has certain benefits, but a look behind the label reveals a complicated picture. In 2001, the federal government mandated standards for organic production. Farmers must demonstrate they conform to a checklist of practices that forbid certain chemicals and chemical fertilizers for crops, according to Barlett. Livestock are fed organic feed and processed in facilities separate from conventional animals. No hormones or antibiotics are permitted in milk or animal products. Certified organic food, Barlett says, brings a premium in the marketplace.

But resources such as Pollan’s book helped the group grasp the nuances of organic food production—such as the difference between local organic and industrial organic.

“The large-scale farms that produced the contaminated spinach last year are not visibly different from the mega-farms that produce spinach conventionally,” Barlett says, “but they use alternative, nonchemical sources of fertilizer and pest control. In contrast, the roughly forty local organic producers in the Atlanta area mostly operate five acres or less, often producing more than twenty varieties of fruits and vegetables.”

Such farms, including Gaia Gardens, frequently produce food in a way that is more environmentally responsible than conventional growing. Sustainable production methods, according to Barlett, regardless of the size of the farm, typically include attention to soil quality, reduced chemical use, attention to crop rotation or multicropping, maintenance of biodiversity, water quality, safe and fair working conditions for family and hired labor, and the humane treatment of animals. Some certification programs for sustainable production methods also require that no genetically modified seeds be used and no hormones or antibiotic food additives for animals.

“Each of these systems generates different kinds of impacts on water runoff, worker living conditions and pay, wildlife habitat, and farmer income,” Barlett says. “A sustainable food system wants to strengthen all aspects of rural life—economic, social, and environmental—and to bring healthy, fresh food to urban consumers. Sustainable food systems are also valuable ways that people can feel more connected to the places we live.”

As universities strive to employ more responsible practices, food procurement is becoming an important component of future sustainability plans. Emory’s overarching vision for sustainability calls for the University to buy 75 percent of ingredients for campus dining options from local or sustainably grown sources by 2015.

“The sustainable food initiative is part of the overall Sustainability Initiative to make our campus greener and cleaner,” says Ciannat Howett, director of the Office of Sustainability (above left, on a landscape clean-up project during Emory Cares International Service Day). “It’s an effort to encourage a healthy lifestyle and also sustainable choices in terms of how food comes to our campus. We are interested in reducing the use of fossil fuels and energy consumption by having more local food options. Because Emory has real purchasing power in its own procurement of food, we can help shape the market.”

There also is movement afoot to start a series of educational gardens on campus in small pockets of green space. The first of these will be planted this spring.

“The general reaction to the sustainable food initiatives at Emory has been extremely strong,” Barlett says. “Everyone loves the idea of a farmers’ market on campus, students love the idea of more fresh, local food in the dining halls, and faculty and staff have offered to help with an expanded community garden proposal.”

But when it comes to fresh food, sustainability is just half the picture. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that whole or nonprocessed food is generally healthier
for the body than highly processed, additive-laden foods.

For example, cardiovascular experts William Eley 79C 83M 90PH, executive associate dean for medical education and student affairs, and Wayne Alexander, R. Bruce Logue Professor of Medicine, presented to the reading group new research on the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet, which stands in sharp contrast to the eating habits of most Americans.

“They actually eat a high percentage of fat—about
35 to 40 percent—but it comes mainly from olive oil, a non-animal fat,” Eley says. “They also eat a lot of salads
and fresh fruit, in concert with an active lifestyle with a lot of walking. All this can reduce the risk of heart disease.”

A vegetarian since college, Eley says a significant portion of disease could be prevented through a healthy lifestyle and a few simple, yet effective, habits. “We should try to maintain our health, rather than just treat it once it goes awry,” he says. “I don’t think it’s news that we need to eat a healthy diet with more fresh fruits and vegetables and less fat from animal sources. We need to exercise, avoid tobacco products, enjoy alcohol in moderation, and get our rest—that goes a long way. But we know there is magic in fresh fruits and vegetables that cannot be put into a pill.”

Even college students, notorious for all-nighters fueled by pizza and caffeine, are showing new interest in eating right. Oxford College was one of four sites in the country to pilot Sodexho’s Balanced Way program, which focuses on healthy eating rather than dieting. The Balanced Way plate is divided into three sections—half fruits and vegetables, one-fourth high-quality protein, and one-fourth whole-grain carbohydrates. Sodexho also is contracting with a Florida-based supplier to offer more organic foods, including a new grab-and-go cooler in Cox Hall.

“We are committed to trying to get more organics on campus and see what kind of participation we get,” says Christy Cook, campus procurement manager for Sodexho. “There’s a lot of excitement about it.”

And in Barlett’s popular course, “Fast Food, Slow Food,” students are learning about food production and helping to organize a sustainable food fair. They also must shop for—and cook—a new, local or organic food.
“The papers they wrote about the experience were really fun,” Barlett says. “And they made me hungry.”

Q&A with Peggy Barlett:
Anthropologist and Adventurous Cook

How did you become interested the connections among food, health, and sustainability?
My first research projects were studies of farming families in Costa Rica and Ecuador. Issues of poverty and progress, family farming strategies, and health were all intertwined. In a later phase of my research during the 1980s, I studied the farm crisis in one county in south Georgia, and though malnutrition was not an issue there, many farmers were concerned about the rates of cancer in their families and about the effects of agricultural chemicals. In the 1990s, as I began to study how universities are moving toward sustainability around the country, I was impressed with efforts to build a sustainable food system, to bring healthy, locally grown, organic foods into schools and to teach about the ways in which our food dollars contribute to different production systems—some of which are much better for the ecosystem and for workers. It was particularly satisfying for me because the subject of sustainable food systems combines my previous research on U.S. and developing country farm families and my current work at Emory around sustainability.

Where do you shop, and do you like to cook?
I love to cook, and I shop everywhere—Kroger, Publix, the DeKalb Farmers Market, Sevananda Natural Foods Cooperative, Whole Foods. But I love best my local Morningside Farmers Market on Saturday mornings—where now I can buy organic vegetables twelve months a year. I love learning how to cook new things I buy there, and I like knowing that spending a bit more on a better diet for myself contributes to the welfare of farming families in my region.

For many of us, it seems overwhelming to try to buy all organic or local food, never entering a Publix or Kroger again. What are some manageable steps we can take to change our eating and shopping habits?
Fortunately, we don’t have to give up grocery store shopping. Keep asking your produce manager to stock local produce. Several stores around the University feature local corn, cantaloupes, peaches, and other crops in season. And at present, the main way we can get organic eggs, dairy, and other products is through conventional grocery stores. I’ve found that change for me is easiest if I don’t give up anything. Instead, I try to add something new or try out a new dish on a regular basis. Just as we think about donating to a charity from time to time, we can begin by donating to the survival of local farms by embracing a diet of more fresh, healthy food for ourselves and our families.






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