Food for Thought

By Phoebe Larson and Jan Senn

When it comes to making ethical choices about food, the answers are not always obvious. We’re serving up a smorgasbord of approaches from Carls who are concerned about food issues.

These days, simply feeding yourself and your family is fraught with ethical dilemmas. Should you buy your food at a national chain, neighborhood grocery store, local co-op, farmers market, or neighboring farm—or grow your own? Organic or conventional? Local or imported? In season or out? Wild or farmed? Grass-fed or corn-fed? Fair trade or free trade? Do you want fries with that? And don’t overlook your carbon footprint: Is your dinner causing climate change?

It’s a lot to think about, and what might seem like smart choices often are not. We may lose sight of larger problems. As John Murlis, a British scientist quoted last year in the New Yorker, says, “You can feel very good about the organic potatoes you buy from a farm near your home, but half the emissions—and half the footprint—from those potatoes could come from the energy you use to cook them.”

Throw in the current global economic and food crises, and many families—across town and around the globe—can no longer afford the rising cost of food. While some people worry about whether or not to buy organic, others wonder where their next meal will come from.

To help us grapple with the ethics of our food choices, we contacted Carls, both on campus and off, who deal with food issues daily. There are no easy answers, but for some of us, at least, there are options. As a Chinese saying goes, “A person who has food has many problems. A person who has no food has only one problem.”


Erin BarnettErin Barnett ’92

Director, LocalHarvest, Northfield

After nearly two decades of working with food and sustainability issues, Erin Barnett ’92, founder and director of LocalHarvest—a public, nationwide directory and marketing site for small farms, farmers markets, and local food sources—is ready to tackle the big stuff. “Time is running out for only doing what’s easy,” she says. “If we are serious about sustainability, we have to be willing to go to bat for Earth.” The following are her suggestions for how we can all step up to the plate:

Start a support group. “Last year a friend and I established a Carbon Footprint Supper Club that met once a month in Northfield to talk about sustainability issues. Many of us felt guilty and overwhelmed by the global food and climate crisis, and it helped to discuss it together. We focused on food, transportation, and home energy use, and we committed to small actions every month—for example, using a clothesline or driving only two days a week.”

Experiment. “Some of the things my husband and I try we do just once; others are becoming new habits. Using my car only twice a week was a dismal failure, but we bought a car that runs on waste vegetable oil.”

Grow your own food. “We put in a home kitchen garden and a larger garden outside of town and preserved food for the winter. Growing your own food provides a deeper level of connection than shopping for groceries at a supermarket. It can change your relationship to the seasons, the weather, your diet, your family, and your neighbors.”

Eat local and unprocessed food. “Shipping food across the globe to satisfy our whims is not sustainable. As we are able, we need to center our diets around local seasonal produce and high-quality local meat and dairy products. Reserve imported and processed foods for treats. Eating more ‘real food’ is better for our land, our health, and—I would argue—our happiness.”

Just do it. “Activism requires us to get out of our living rooms and say, ‘This is important. This matters.’ Then all manner of possibilities open up. The work becomes obvious and you just do what needs doing.”


Web Extra: Find organic farmers in your area.


David Hougen-Eitzman

Bio 160: Agroecology
Course description:
Agriculture comprises the greatest single type of land use on the planet. This course focuses on the biological properties of agricultural ecosystems, with an eye toward those that are most sustainable. Topics include organic farming, biotechnology, and effects of pesticide use.
Class project:
Farmleton: designing an institutionally supported, student-run farm at Carleton
Required reading:
Agroecology: The Ecology of Sustainable Food Systems by Stephen Gliessman (2006); The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan (2007)
Field trip: Hougen-Eitzman plans to take future classes to China over winter break to study international farming issues.

David Hougen-Eitzman

Senior lecturer in biology, “Agroecology” course instructor, farmer, Nerstrand, Minnesota

David Hougen-Eitzman not only teaches a course at Carleton on agroecology—the study of the ecological impact of agricultural practices—he lives it. A senior lecturer in biology, Hougen-Eitzman and his wife, Laurie, own and operate Big Woods Farm, an organic vegetable farm 12 miles from campus in Nerstrand, Minnesota.

They shun chemicals and pesticides on their 79-acre farm, but Hougen-Eitzman invites conventional farmers to be guest lecturers in his class. “We explore farming from a variety of perspectives: consumer, grower, environmentalist, and policy maker,” he says. “We look at a lot of issues from a farmer’s perspective because that is where many of the choices are made.”

Hougen-Eitzman helps students understand farmers’ numerous options, the history behind those options, and the results of farmers’ choices. For example, when he’s discussing the long-term viability of the soil, he explains the concept of no-till farming—a method of planting crops without plowing that uses herbicides to control weeds.
“No-till reduces erosion, but it increases herbicide use, which is harmful to the environment,” he says. “A farmer may place a priority on reducing erosion to maintain the land for his children. If you ask him, ‘Are you treating the land well?’ he will say, ‘Yes, I do no-till,’ but it’s a trade-off.”

No matter what careers his students choose to pursue, Hougen-Eitzman believes it is essential for them to understand agricultural concepts. After all, we all participate in the farming industry whenever we visit a grocery store, fruit stand, or restaurant. “Knowing about farming issues empowers you to make choices as a voter, as a consumer, as a government official, as a scientist—whatever you are,” he says. “There are ethical dimensions to consuming any piece of food.”


Marc Cohen ’74

Research fellow, International Food Policy Research Institute,* Washington, D.C.

Two years ago, the United Nations reported that about 850 million people globally were suffering from hunger, mainly due to chronic, long-term poverty in developing countries. Yet few U.S. and European officials considered that figure a crisis. Then, in 2008, as food prices spiked worldwide, talk of a global food crisis suddenly was all over the news. The surge in food prices meant that millions more people could no longer afford to buy food and were seeking help from relief organizations.

We asked Marc Cohen ’74, a research fellow for the International Food Policy Research Institute—a Washington, D.C.–based organization that seeks sustainable solutions to ending hunger and poverty—to summarize the key factors that have contributed to this recent crisis and how concerned citizens can help.

How to Help

How to Help

Support relief and development efforts. “To aid immediate crisis response and longer-term development efforts, contribute money to organizations such as UNICEF, Oxfam, CARE, and Save the Children.”

Engage in policy advocacy. “Ask your elected officials where and how our government is supporting international development. Insist that food-related uses of corn take priority over fuel-related uses. Government subsidies create an incentive for farmers and processors to turn corn into ethanol. Ethanol production shouldn’t be subsidized. One could produce biofuels in an environmentally friendly way using products other than corn, such as wood chips or certain kinds of grasses.”

Urbanization. “Hunger has been experienced overwhelmingly by the rural poor. But as food prices spiked, hunger became much more of an urban phenomenon. People in cities are more visible in the global media than those in rural areas—particularly people in capital cities, who, if they become discontented, can threaten the stability of governments. In some countries this was seen in protests and demonstrations and, in some cases, riots against rising food prices and a much higher cost of living.”

Changing demand patterns. “Over the past couple of decades, we’ve seen rising standards of living in some parts of Asia, notably China and India. A demand for higher-quality diets and more meat consumption contributed to rising food prices.”

Shift into biofuels. “In recent years more corn—up to 25 to 30 percent of the U.S. corn crop—is being used to produce ethanol. The United States is the major exporter of corn; the price of corn on the Chicago Board of Trade is also the world price, and that price is rising. Corn is used not only for human consumption, but also to feed animals that increasingly are being turned into meat in recently affluent countries.”

Speculative activity. “Once the price of food commodities started to go up, speculative activity contributed to a further rise. In the United States, the real estate market collapsed, the tech bubble burst, so commodities became the next place that hot money was chasing.”

High price of energy. “Energy has an intimate relationship with food. Commercial fertilizer, transportation, mechanized agricultural production—all depend on fossil fuels. For the past two to three years, the increase in the price of cereal grains paralleled the spike in energy prices, particularly petroleum. Because the price of petroleum is high, there is a rising demand for ethanol for biofuel, so that contributes to the rising price of corn.”

* Marc Cohen is now a humanitarian researcher with Oxfam America in Washington, D.C.


Vera ChangVera Chang ’09

Founder of Food Truth, Northfield

Vera Chang ’09 (New York City) is uneasy about labels—she doesn’t like being pigeonholed—but she couldn’t resist coming up with one of her own in an attempt to articulate her current position on food: ethicitarian. “I haven’t fleshed it out completely,” she says, “but it describes someone who thinks about food in accordance with ethics and values.”

Chang, who grew up in a family of vegetarians and over the years experimented with eating vegan, macrobiotic, and raw foods, takes a broad approach in her personal food practices. “I don’t think there’s a strict right or wrong way to eat, but I do believe that you should be conscious about your food choices, whatever they may be,” she says.

Her interest in food issues led Chang to found Food Truth at Carleton—a student-run organization dedicated to raising food consciousness by examining the environmental, political, social, and ethical effects of the way we eat. Now in its third year, Food Truth organizes community dinners, film showings, workshops, local farm visits, and farm bill campaigns. It also brings politicians, authors, farmers, and activists to campus to discuss various issues such as the global food crisis and the fair trade agenda.

In the summer, as part of Carleton’s Environmental and Technology Studies summer internship fellowship, Chang—who graduated in the fall with a special major in global ethics and plans to pursue studies in food policy and community development—worked on several sustainable food and food justice projects in California. During fall term, Chang and Katie Blanchard ’10 (Petoskey, Mich.) traveled to Italy to take part in Terra Madre 2008, the world’s largest gathering of food producers, chefs, academics, and youth delegates from around the world, coordinated by the Slow Food organization. For four days, they met together in regional and national meetings to work toward increasing small-scale, traditional, and sustainable food production.

“The international food movement is young—and so is Carleton’s food movement,” says Chang. “But we’re blooming. Together with Slow Food at Carleton (which focuses on taste education, cooking, and promoting artisanal foods), we hope to attract people who are interested in the environment, social justice, policy, farming, cooking, and eating to explore how these issues relate to our campus and the greater community—and how we can influence the rest of the world.”

Web Extra: Learn more about the Food Truth community at Carleton.


Susannah Morgan ’91

Executive Director, Food Bank of Alaska, Anchorage

Here’s a dilemma. If someone offers you free food to give to hungry people, do you accept anything or do you hold out for something more nutritious? That’s a question that people who work for food banks—organizations that secure donated food for nonprofit agencies to distribute to the hungry—ask themselves. But in this economic crisis, can charitable organizations afford to be choosy? And what will they do if there aren’t enough donations to meet the increasing demand for their services? We called Susannah Morgan ’91, who leads the Food Bank of Alaska, for some answers:

“We fall squarely into the ‘accept everything’ camp; we believe that all food has value, be it nutritional, cultural, or emotional.

“As food prices go up, food donations go down. For the short run, the only option is to buy more food. Every food bank buys some amount of food, but we’ve been doing it independently. The big push at the national level—206 food banks belong to Feeding America, which coordinates and enhances our activities—is to consolidate our food purchasing and try to get the best prices. For the long run, we also are working at the government level, promoting legislation to increase funding for food stamp outreach and government-funded food programs.

“I recently heard a statistic: 50 percent of adults in this country will be on food stamps at some point during their life. Something goes wrong—a divorce, a layoff, a car accident, illness—and for a period of time they need charitable food assistance. Hungry Americans are not them. Hungry Americans are us.

“Our organization is founded on the belief that no one deserves to be hungry, that we collectively are responsible for ensuring that our neighbors have enough to eat. In hard times, acting on this belief becomes more difficult—sources of food donations dry up as need for food assistance rises. It would be easy to lose hope that eliminating hunger is possible.

“So I don’t look around me for sources of hope. I look inside. I reach into the depths and find my best self, the one who isn’t selfish, or petty, or impatient, or insecure, and for a few shining moments I become hope. And quick! before it vanishes, I try to share my hope that we can feed our hungry neighbors, one pound of food at a time. Become hope yourself. It is amazing how different the world will look to you.”

Web Extra: Find out how to get involved with your local food bank.
Learn how to advocate for hunger relief.


Erin Barnett

Lindsay Byhre

Retail Manager of Sayles Café at Carleton

Kate McKenna

District Manager for Bon Appétit, Northfield

Bon Appétit is known for its commitment to high-quality, sustainably produced food—which is a big reason why Carleton chose it to be the College’s food service provider beginning last summer. So you would think that Carls would embrace the company’s goal for the café in Sayles-Hill: to buy all proteins locally, from within a 150-mile radius, as a prototype for this specific location. Not everyone, however, appreciates the concept—café staff members still receive requests for tuna salad. “There’s no tuna to be found in the Cannon or Mississippi Rivers,” says Lindsay Byhre, retail manager of Sayles Café (formerly known as the Snack Bar).

Byhre and Kate McKenna, Bon Appétit’s district manager, discussed some of the challenges involved in providing sustainably produced food for a college campus:

Time: “Our executive chef spent many hours scoping the area, going to farmers markets, talking to local farmers, and visiting farms to make sure they meet our requirements,” says McKenna. “They don’t need to be certified organic—that’s a time-consuming and costly proposition—but we require them to follow organic practices.”

Volume: “A lot of the farmers we work with are small, and a college campus uses a lot of food,” says McKenna. “It took a while to get turkey burgers in because we needed to find local farmers who could consistently produce the quantity we need for this location,” adds Byhre. “Our chicken vendor would like to increase their production so they can help us provide things like chicken fingers, but they’re not there yet. In the meantime, we offer chicken wings, because they don’t require the same kind of processing.”

Perception: “We’re not here to take things away,” says Byhre. “We know students want some junk food after they’ve been studying for five hours. We’re working with the bakery to provide snacks like trail mix, salted nut rolls, and peanut butter cups that aren’t prepackaged.”

Education: “In January, Bon Appétit is introducing a low-carbon-diet program to help students understand how their food choices affect greenhouse gases,” says McKenna. “A meter on our Web site (www.bamco.com) shows the carbon impact of different foods. It’s one way to make people aware of the different options [on our menu] and how they can inform their choices.”


Janaki Fisher-Merritt ’99

Organic farmer, Wrenshall, Minnesota

Few people farm in northern Minnesota, where winter weather typically arrives in October and doesn’t let up until May. “It often feels like we’re trying to grow food in the Great White North,” says Janaki Fisher-Merritt ’99, who, with his parents, runs Food Farm, the family’s seven-and-one-half-acre organic farm and community supported agriculture (CSA) program in Wrenshall, Minnesota, 25 miles southwest of Duluth. CSA programs allow people to make an annual financial contribution to a farm and, in return, receive a weekly box of produce throughout the harvest season. Such programs are becoming popular as more people attempt to eat local food in-season. Food Farm sells 140 shares in the summer and, in the winter, 90 shares from their climate-controlled root cellar. We asked Fisher-Merritt to explain the benefits of CSA programs:

“It’s important to gain a working knowledge of what food is and where it comes from. For example, our farm has to be certified organic because about 25 percent of what we grow we sell wholesale to Whole Foods in Duluth. However, too much attention is paid to the organic label and not enough to where the food comes from. Who is producing it? How? My family buys beef and milk from our neighbors who aren’t certified organic, but I know they do a great job.

“Having a CSA membership is a good way for people to understand how the growing season works, what’s happening with the weather, and what it takes to produce their food. Plus, there’s no better way to learn about food than to have it show up and to have to do something with it. Cooking with natural ingredients is a lost skill for some, but it doesn’t have to be fancy or exotic. Most CSAs provide a variety of produce and recipes.

“From a farmer’s standpoint, CSAs are an efficient way to grow and deliver a lot of food. We used to sell at the local farmers market and we tried U-pick, but it takes a lot of work to sell your goods while you’re harvesting. You spend most of your time marketing when you should be farming. We market the CSA shares in the winter when there aren’t as many demands on our time.”


BeanSara Hoffman ’05

Research associate, Syngenta Seeds, Stanton, Minnesota

With the world’s population estimated to grow by more than 40 percent in the next half century, the question arises: How will we feed everyone? Genetically modified organisms (GMOs)—crop plants that have been genetically engineered to enhance desired traits—offer a potential solution to the growing global food crisis. “GMOs improve crop yields and harvest quality,” says Sara Hoffman ’05, a research associate with Syngenta Seeds, a manufacturer of genetically modified seeds and crop protection products such as herbicides, fungicides, and insecticides. “You can plant less and still feed the same number of people, so you don’t need as much land. And you can plant in areas that previously couldn’t grow crops successfully—for example, areas of high drought.”

Opponents of GMOs cite potential hazards that may include unknown human health risks, unintended harm to other organisms, and costly transitions to unfamiliar technology and new equipment. Agribusinesses patent genetically modified seeds and sell them at a higher price than conventional seeds, which can prevent small farmers and third-world countries from reaping their benefits.

Others believe that the benefits of GMOs may outweigh the risks. “GMOs are more efficient for farmers because they can withstand pesticides,” says Hoffman. “A farmer can spray a GM crop and the weeds will die, but the crop will remain unharmed.” Meanwhile, GM crops engineered to produce their own pesticides—delivered only to the bugs that eat them, not to the surrounding environment—have drastically reduced chemical pesticide use in the United States and other countries, according to an Atlantic Monthly article. Higher yields in rice, coffee, vegetables, and other crops have stopped forest clearing in many areas, and salt- and aluminum-tolerant GM crops also may be able to restore productivity to land rendered infertile by those elements. Epidemiologist and biotechnology consultant Hsien-Hsien Lie, the founding author of
geneticsandhealth.com, predicts that future GMOs may produce faster-growing crops, more-nutritious foods, and foods that can deliver vaccines.

As new technology emerges, the GMO debate promises to continue. “If you had asked
me before I started working at Syngenta, I may have been against GMOs,” says Hoffman. “Now I see the stringent regulation that goes into them—years and years of testing—and all the benefits. We are feeding more people than we ever could before.” 


Michael HemesathMichael Hemesath

Professor of Economics, Director of Ethical Inquiry at Carleton (EthIC), Northfield

According to the EthIC Web site, Carleton students rate “developing a meaningful philosophy of life” as their most important value. In November, EthIC—a program that supports and encourages discussion of ethical issues within Carleton classrooms and throughout the larger Carleton community—cosponsored a student-organized panel discussion on fair trade and the global food economy. We asked economics professor Michael Hemesath, who was on the panel, to discuss these issues from an economist’s perspective.

Should the global market economy be based on free-trade or fair-trade principles? Both. The fair-trade model—which raises the return to producers of goods by paying them more than the current market price—is clearly a powerful model for lots of consumers, but it’s also important to give consumers a choice. If they don’t want to purchase fair-trade goods, which cost more and are basically a charitable donation, then free-trade goods also make poor countries better off.

For example, growers who sell coffee to Folgers are employed in producing goods and services and earning income for their families. Their income may not be as high as if they were selling to Peace Coffee, but it’s far better than having no job at all. Improving working conditions and raising wages can make the cost of producing that coffee higher. As the price goes up, consumers buy less of it. That potentially can hurt the producers you’re trying to help. So that’s the trade-off. We can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

How will our current economy affect the growth of fair-trade products? “The short run—the next year to year and a half—is going to be a tough period. Fair-trade products are more expensive, and people will tend to cut back. This same time period is going to be much worse for the poor in our country and around the world.”

What can we do to help the world’s poor when we’re feeling stretched ourselves?  “As we feel the pinch at home, remember that this may be a time in which our charitable contributions are even more powerful. Purchasing fair-trade products, giving to charities, participating in service projects, and becoming involved politically to bring about your particular vision of a just society are all options.

“If you care about the less well off in the world, consider our government’s trade policies toward developing countries. Foreign aid amounts pale in comparison to the volume of international trade that takes place between countries. The vast majority of developing countries would much rather have access to the rich world’s markets to sell their goods than to receive a few million dollars more in foreign aid. The real money is in the global trading economy. Our policies toward developing countries with regard to trade and investment are hugely important to those countries.”

Add a comment

The following fields are not to be filled out. Skip to Submit Button.
(This is here to trap robots. Don't put any text here.)
(This is here to trap robots. Don't put any text here.)
(This is here to trap robots. Don't put any text here.)