Though the trends towards sustainability and green practices are scarcely new, a professor column featured in last Friday’s paper (“My mixed epiphany,” Sept. 14) introduced us to the question of how well we truly understand and live with these buzzwords. As a student body, we promote ideas of environmentally friendly practices but, what does this really mean? As we begin to cook for and feed ourselves in a locavore-conscious city, we can learn to act green.
I understand sustainability as an ecosystem maintained in balance that satisfies all participants over time, but many new usages substantiate the idea that we do not have a holistic understanding of this term. Instead, we often “go green” by buying organic or recycling—which indeed represents a part of helping our environment—but as a student body we have the unique ability both to create a stronger and more aware campus community here and to promote these ideas in our neighborhood, at home and wherever we decide to go in the future. In order to create and participate in a sustainable system in the city, we must understand the choices that we make and look out for new ways to think and act. Food can a big part of this. Sustainability, even in regard to food, extends beyond mere produce and meats: To be sustainable, we must also invest in our community so that all its members can continue to evolve and grow.
At Columbia, we are fortunate to have a Farmer’s Market biweekly and a fall Community Supported Agriculture program that helps us address issues of food, ecosystems, and community. Our Morningside Heights CSA allows people in the area (college students or not) to buy a share for 10 weeks of vegetables, providing the local farmer with capital and assurance to continue farming in the face of nature’s sometimes fickle ways. The key to both the Farmer’s Market and CSA’s, from a broad ecological standpoint, begins with the fact that the food comes from nearby and therefore entails a minimal energy impact compared to the miles that some more exotic foods require. (I am not saying that we should forego these little luxuries but ask that we pay attention to hidden costs of the choices we make).
You may wonder how community involvement pertains to sustainability, yet by simply visiting the Farmer’s Market and CSA’s, you can sense the community they foster. Here, we know that people produce food and make choices themselves about how and why. Yes, sometimes we want tomatoes or bread without the story, but so many of these stalls really embody people who have chosen to raise food in particular ways—respecting animals and plants, preserving heritage varieties, celebrating taste and choice. It is cheaper and faster to buy tomatoes shipped like green cardboard from pesticide-drenched fields in Florida, but isn’t there something special about the ones that come in funny colors, with specks and dents? While shopping at a farmer’s market, the number of interactions we have with other customers and vendors create familiarity and a sense of comfort. Though these chats may not be long, if you simply think of the lack of interaction at a supermarket, you can grasp how these chats, however brief, build upon each other to firmly establish yourself as an active participant in this community. The CSA relationship is even stronger, binding us to growers and the growing season itself, so we can understand the ramifications of our purchases rather than dodge them.
This past summer, I worked at the Mariposa Food Co-op in West Philadelphia. I was originally unaware of a strong community’s crucial role in sustainable living. The people I worked with showed me how important it is for the community to patronize a place that reinvests in its community through purchases as well as volunteer time, creating a cycle of beneficial interactions. This neighborhood is experiencing new growth and prosperity, but the most important lesson for me was belief of the community in its ability to affect the direction of its own growth. In thinking about food and sustainability, we need to look beyond widespread trends and easy “greenwashing” to think about how to sustain not only the earth but the many communities around us.
The author is a Barnard College sophomore. She is the coordinator of Morningside Heights CSA.