Milking Davis for its sustainable food opportunities

NICHOLAS CHAN / AGGIE

The truth about how much it costs to eat sustainably

Students are leaving behind the drudgery that is Winter Quarter with a reborn hope for sunny days, easier classes and good times at the Rec Pool. While Spring Quarter is the time for students to revisit old hobbies and once again experience the lively Davis community, it is also the time for reviving the sustainable agriculture efforts on campus.

John Campbell, a second-year graduate student in both the plant sciences and land, air and water resources departments, is teaching PLS 15 — Introduction to Sustainable Agriculture this Spring Quarter. Spring is a great time to work in the student farm where students can plant, harvest and experience first-hand everything associated with growing food.

“PLS 15 is offered only in the spring because this allows students to see the way that the change in the season affects life and observing the transition from dormancy to rapid growth in things that we plant,” Campbell said. “The changes in temperature and day length make a huge impact in what things are growing so students get to see much change over time and a lot of activity in both plants and animals in the farm.”

Introduction to Sustainable Agriculture is not the only way students can get their hands dirty in agriculture on campus. Many students volunteer their time or intern at the student farm where they do quite a bit of coursework and hands-on tasks such as harvesting vegetables. However, students also get to learn how sustainable agriculture operations work and even get to take fresh produce home with them.

“To learn about sustainable agriculture by doing is a great way to internalize the complex decisions that go on with regard to the ‘right’ food,” Campbell said. “One of the big questions that comes up is how to balance the different needs of sustainability, and students who work on the farm actually have to make some of those decisions rather than think about them abstractly.”

Sustainable agriculture is an interdisciplinary field that goes hand-in-hand with the food system: how the food is grown on a farm and how it gets to the consumer, including what happens after the consumer is done with it. The food system encompasses the entire cycle, starting with the seeds used to grow the food, the transportation from the farm to the processor and how consumers buy it. The system also addresses the food waste along with the entire cycle and the environmental impacts of that waste.

Davis provides students with numerous opportunities to interact directly with the food system, locally or globally, and foster discussions of making sustainable food more accessible for college students.

“Local, organic, sustainable products can be very expensive so it is important to make these products accessible and equitable,” Campbell said. “If we’re growing high-quality, sustainable produce here and then shipping it 1000 miles away, there’s something about that and it feels wrong not making it available to people locally. Having it be financially accessible is the first step to making it accessible to people.”

It can be easy to fall into the vicious cycle of fast food and coffee when classes get tough and free time disappears. However, the UC Davis community makes it very feasible for students to pursue a sustainable food system within their own diets, despite the expenses.

Shea Robinson is a fifth-year sustainable agriculture and food systems major and peer advisor at UC Davis. Robinson is also president of the Students for Sustainable Agriculture club and has found a passion for breaking the stereotype that sustainable living is too expensive for the average college student.

“There are so many populations of people who don’t have the right access to the food so it is very important to have a club where we can bring together students of different majors and different backgrounds to discuss how to make a healthy food system accessible,” Robinson said. “The club looks at why healthier food is so much more expensive and addressing all kinds of ‘right ways’ to address this issue.”

Robinson, who hopes to eventually open her own student-accessible, locally-supported café in Davis, said the term “sustainable agriculture” refers to looking at the agricultural system as it is today and figuring out how to make it last for many years in the future.

“One of the biggest issues I keep going back to is the idea that the sustainability movement is only for the rich or only for those who have the time to spend on better food,” Robinson said. “These perceptions prevent people with a lower income, including college students, from buying food from sustainable sources because labels like ‘organic’ or ‘fair trade’ scare them away.”

With the revival of the student farm, the Wednesday evening Farmers Market and weekly produce stands on the Quad, spring is the perfect time to break the notion that healthy food is too expensive and reconsider personal food choices. Since Davis provides almost too many places to start when deciding how to pursue a sustainable food system, the difficulty lies within picking the right one.

“It can be overwhelming to find a place to start using your purchasing power more sustainably, so I try to pick one or two things that I want to be consistent on,” Robinson said. “I buy eggs from hens that have room to roam around, even though it can be literally twice as expensive for a dozen, because that’s one of the decisions I made for myself and I find it very important. I can’t spend that much in every aspect, but eggs is one of the places that I feel good about spending more.”

After students pick which area they are willing to make more sustainable, they must analyze how this more sustainable option will affect their wallet and figure out how to make it work economically.

“In terms of the standard college budget there’s a lot that’s spent on alcohol and coffee, as well as books and classes,” Robinson said. “When you add up the one to five dollars you spend going to a fast food restaurant every day of the week, it is considerably more expensive than pooling your money and going to the Farmers Market and spending $20 on produce that will last you all week. The Farmers Market is a great option that makes sustainable choices available for students.”

The Pantry is another resources on campus that receives food grown on the student farm, making free, fresh produce accessible to students. The meat lab is another great resource that sells cheese, eggs and all kinds of meat for extremely cheap prices. Students can stop on Thursday and Friday afternoons when the lab has an open market and find eggs for as cheap as six dollars for a flat.

As a seasoned Farmers Market patron, Allie Fafard, a third-year sustainable agriculture and food systems major and peer advisor, divulged that students can even redeem Aggie Cash for Farmers Market credit used to purchase produce. In addition, students can subscribe to the student farm’s Community Supported Agriculture program which puts together baskets of produce for students to pick up for a good price. With all of these options, it is important for students to take steps toward making the change to a more sustainable lifestyle and not become overwhelmed.

“It starts with asking yourself what you value because sustainability is all about analyzing your values,” Fafard said. “Personally, I decided that I really value organic, local produce so I allocate $20 a week from the food budget my parents give me to buying produce from the Farmers Market. That was my personal choice, but it caused me to make sacrifices elsewhere.”

According to Fafard, the change toward a more sustainable lifestyle begins when students start analyzing their individual impact on food systems and thinking about the choices they can make for a more sustainable system. For example, healthy produce may be a lot cheaper at Trader Joe’s than the Farmers Market, but this is a choice that produces a lot of plastic waste and is not sustainable for the environment.

It can be very difficult to make a decision that will benefit the individual, community and environment without having any negative impacts, so students must analyze where they personally can make the most change and have the biggest impact.

“It starts with taking a chance,” Fafard said. “A lot of people have a notion that you need to have a certain amount of money to make these better food choices and there is definitely some truth to that, but you will be surprised at how much you can buy and make with $20 at the Farmers Market. If you’re unfamiliar with this lifestyle, spring is the perfect time to start with plenty of resources to get you moving in the right direction.”
Written by: Jay Gelvezon — features@theaggie.org