What did our Sustainable Food interns do this year?

Allison Li ’22 and Gold Carson ’23 (left to right)

Here’s a little bit about what Zilkha Center Sustainable Food Interns Allison Li ‘22 and Gold Carson ‘23 did this year!

Building off work Allison started during the summer, our first big project of the year was organizing Food Justice Week and Beyond, a series of events intended to increase campus engagement with sustainable food and food justice issues. We partnered with many different student groups, offices, and departments across campus to present a wide variety of events; highlights included the Real Food Day dinners, local and sustainable meals at all three dining halls, and a workshop and lecture from Soul Fire Farm’s Leah Penniman (watch the full lecture here!) Throughout the course of the week (and beyond!), we gathered community input regarding food on campus in order to define the food values that will guide the Zilkha Center’s future sustainable food work with Dining. Allison summarized these food values in this report.

During Winter Study, we began Williams’ Real Food Calculator Assessment for the 2018-19 academic year in order to determine the share of sustainable food as a percentage of Dining Services’ purchases that year. The Real Food Challenge (RFC) defines “real food” as local/community-based, fair, ecologically sound, and human, and outlines the specific third party certifications and criteria that qualify a given product for each of these four categories; if it qualifies for at least one of the categories, the product is considered real. Doing the RFC involved many, many hours of combing through spreadsheets of Dining’s purchases from the two representative months we chose, September and February (a good harvest month and a bad one); we first filled out the information for the products that past interns have vetted, before emailing each of our vendors with questions about the remaining items.

The RFC process was stalled when we were sent home in mid-March, but we were thankfully able to pick up again in April. Our Dining leadership and vendors were really wonderful in working with us to provide us with the information we requested, so a big thank you to them for making the RFC still possible! We found that in 2018-19, Williams was 12% Real Food.

In the first half of the spring semester, Gold continued their food justice work through starting a Student/Farmworker Alliance club on campus. They worked to coordinate transportation for and get students interested in the SFA’s NYC Follow the Money March to protest Wendy’s refusal to join the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ Fair Food Program, which ensures humane wages and working conditions on participating farms. Gold also invited Migrant Justice to speak about Milk with Dignity, a campaign for human rights for dairy farmworkers across Vermont. Unfortunately, however, SFA’s march and MJ’s visit had to be canceled due to Covid-19.

While the pandemic definitely disrupted many of our plans for the semester, the sustainable food team regrouped in late March and began rethinking our goals. In order to show our community’s appreciation for the Dining staff who continue to feed the students still on campus, we asked Williams community members to send in short videos of themselves thanking Dining. Gold edited them together into this amazing video!

Allison watched a webinar about sustainable food programs used at other colleges and universities and evaluated if any of them would be a better fit for Williams than the RFC. She wrote this report with recommendations for how Williams should approach sustainable food in the future, laying out a case for why we should recommit to the RFC accountability framework and supplement it by signing onto the World Resources Institute’s Cool Food Pledge (CFP). The CFP aims to help different types of institutions, from companies and hospitals to colleges and universities, reduce their collective food-related greenhouse gas emissions 25% by 2030 relative to 2015 levels, which would provide a specific and measurable goal and a method for tracking our progress.

Lastly, we started brainstorming virtual sustainable food training for Dining staff. Dining Director Temesgen Araya told us that he wanted his staff to know more about what sustainable food means and why it matters in order to get them more excited about it. Rather than building skills such as sustainable food menu planning and cooking, our training will most likely focus on educating staff on the fundamentals of sustainable food and its relevance to both Williams and the world.

Despite the setbacks, we’re incredibly proud of what we accomplished this year. Covid-19 has illuminated the many failures of our current food system, from food insecurity despite enormous waste to unfair conditions for our essential food workers. We hope that this crisis inspires people to begin demanding systemic change and our leaders to answer that call, and that Williams can be a part of that change.

Allison Li ‘22 and Gold Carson ‘23 are Sustainable Food interns for the 2019-2020 academic year, from Valhalla, New York, and Montclair, New Jersey, respectively.