$24K grant supports CU Boulder students, faculty food-literacy project
For decades in the post-World War II era, it’s fair to say that the diet of most Americans became less and less local. With innovations ranging from the interstate highway system to affordable home refrigeration and freezing systems, it simply became easier to eat food that came from a state — or even a country — far, far away.
But in the past decade, thanks to an overwhelming scientific consensus that global temperatures are rising, largely due to increased anthropogenic carbon in the atmosphere, “eating local” has come to be seen a way for average citizens to make a difference.
But when students in Veronica House’s “Food and Culture” writing course went around Boulder County to interview consumers, restaurateurs and farmers, they quickly discovered that “local” doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone.
“Some consumers think they are supporting ethical considerations such as worker or animal welfare, or a low carbon footprint,” says House, associate director for service learning and outreach and founder and chair of the Conference on Community Writing in the Program for Writing and Rhetoric at CU Boulder.
With that — and the 21st-century social-media environment — in mind, the students crafted a pithy marketing message to get conversations started: “Local: It’s about more than miles.”
And now, thanks to a $24,000 CU Boulder Outreach Award, House, her students, and two other faculty members, Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Peter Newton and Phaedra C. Pezzullo, associate professor of communications and director of Boulder Talks!, will reach even farther into the community to increase “food literacy.”
“I can’t tell you the number of times I hear, even from foodies, ‘I can’t go to Sprouts or the farmers’ market because I can’t afford it. And I think, ‘Well, you can afford your data plan, your lattes, all these other things in life, a house with twice the square footage you need to live. It’s not that we can’t afford it. It’s that as a culture, we don’t prioritize food.’”
“Dig In! to Local Food” is a collaboration with The Shed: Boulder County Foodshed, a working board that seeks to educate the public about and encourage increased growth and consumption of local food. The Shed also tries to better understand the complexities and challenges faced by local farmers, discrepancies in what is meant by “local food,” why some residents can’t afford locally grown food, and why some people aren’t interested in eating local.
The project will feature an art contest for high-school students, workshops for the public, interviews with local farmers and creation of a map of local farms, organic farms and community-supported agriculture projects for the Boulder Farmer’s Market.
“Nineteen of 24 small-scale organic farms that opened in the last five years in Boulder County went under,” says House, founder of the award-winning Writing Initiative for Service and Engagement in the Program for Writing and Rhetoric. “Peter Newton’s students will conduct interviews with farmers who have made it, and who haven’t, to help government officials develop policies — what makes it difficult for them to farm?”
On the underside of that furrow is a parallel problem: Why is it difficult for so many people — including many students — to afford locally grown food?
Brian Coppom, executive director of the Boulder County Farmers’ Markets, believes part of the answer is that many people simply do not place much value on food.
“I can’t tell you the number of times I hear, even from foodies, ‘I can’t go to Sprouts or the farmers’ market because I can’t afford it,” he says. “And I think, ‘Well, you can afford your data plan, your lattes, all these other things in life, a house with twice the square footage you need to live. It’s not that we can’t afford it. It’s that as a culture, we don’t prioritize food.”
House says the project will not just dig into such vexations, but will also point the way toward solutions.
“We acknowledge that local, healthy, organic food is often expensive. We are going to target people with workshops who might not be able to afford it and help figure out cost-effective ways to grow and can and preserve their own food,” she says.
It strikes many local-food advocates as strange, if not downright perverse, that an apple can cost more than a fast-food hamburger. House notes that large agribusiness concerns have powerful lobbies that can influence legislators to provide subsidies and that large-scale agriculture is typically mechanized and makes heavy use of chemicals.
“It’s expensive to farm on a small scale and organically because you have people doing the production, picking weeds and harvesting. You don’t have a huge pesticide sprayer,” she says. “But there are externalized costs to cheap food, including environmental destruction and public-health problems.”
Dig In! will not just benefit farmers and consumers, but also students.
“So often in classroom discussions, students can get away with positing unrealistic ideas. So it’s fantastic to see them going much deeper and hearing from someone in the community about the complexities of a problem,” she says.
Coppom, who serves with House on The Shed board, is thrilled at the collaborative approach of Dig In!
“So often universities, with the research and publications they do, are almost like exporters that don’t have ties with the community,” he says. “This is students and faculty at the university engaging in their own community. … And it actually brings the subject of food to an elevated status of being subject to intellectual discussion and inquiry.”