The Food Better Campaign is a year-long effort to stimulate a conversation and action around the food system. The effort is being organized by the Office for Sustainability, Harvard University Dining Services and the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic. Our Communications Intern, Jahred Liddie. attended the kick-off symposium for the Food Better Campaign and provided us with these thoughts…

Held Friday, October 3, Harvard’s Food Better Symposium was not only an introduction to the University’s year-long campaign, but an overview of the entire food system. The campaign—which aims to explore ways to grow better food, as well as to eat, shop, and waste better—breaks the academic year into different regimes by month, each with a different topic area. With discussions, lectures, and think-tank-like meetings of the minds, Food Better encompasses quite a bit, with involvement of people at all levels and disciplines. Though the symposium was short in relation to the year-long program—simply a taste— it had much to offer in the way of food systems education.

The event’s moderator, Associate Director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment and physician at the Children’s Hospital in Boston, Dr. Aaron Bernstein, opened with an interesting anecdote from a pediatric appointment he had with a young girl. Choosing to munch on an apple over the usual bag of chips or cookies, the patient perplexed Doctor Bernstein, who asked her, “Where do you think the apple came from?” Her response? The supermarket. Not a tree, or an orchard, but a supermarket. Much more than just an anecdote or the innocence of a young girl, this story really stuck with me. In our mostly urban and suburban worlds, we have lost sight of nature, of what fundamentally fuels and determines our health. Busy with work and school, we skip or rush through our meals, which are also often unhealthy. Said Dr. Bernstein, “We don’t know quite how [the food system] works, nor do we have the intellectual time or resources to know more about it.” The food system is large and daunting, yet we know so little about it, reaching for apples not from trees but from neatly arranged displays.

Jim Ward of Ward’s Berry Farms spoke further to these points, but now from the perspective of a local farmer. By minimizing the distribution line, and thereby changing the taste and experience of the product, his farm attempts to give its consumers a little more than the chain store. They still, however, have had their fair share of problems in the age of the mass market. In terms of food production, Mr. Ward feels that we’ve strayed far from the days of “buy local” and have by and large lost track of seasons. “There was once a time when people knew the seasons of certain fruits and vegetables,” he said, “Now, our biggest corn day is July Fourth.”  It was then that I realized I, too, did not have a good grasp of the seasons in terms of food, and that we’ve almost entered a new regime of market-over-nature. The pressing needs of market and consumer have trumped the needs of nature herself, with fewer and fewer working and connected directly with food in the United States.

Then, speaking to the role of food in one’s everyday life, Michelle Gallant took the podium. Despite the amount of research done on dietary needs, she said, there are still a lot of gaps in public understanding. “What is a healthy diet?”, she asked the audience. But she told us that this was actually a trick question. Even with a lot of nutritional knowledge, there is not much rationale. All choices are influence by culture, values, the providing agricultural system, and even human genetics, such that strict dietary rules seem arbitrary. She then proposed a solution to the madness, one that I found particularly captivating: mindful eating. Exercising deliberation, and more importantly, taking time to enjoy one’s food, can offer a wide range of benefits. This philosophy conversed well with Mr. Ward’s point on mass markets, and it was clear that quality over quantity—slow over fast—was key in developing a sustainable food culture.

...it was clear that quality over quantity—slow over fast—was key in developing a sustainable food culture.

Near the conclusion of the symposium, Sasha Purpura of Food for Free helped us comb through what happens when food is wasted. Due to a variety of factors at all levels of the food system—corporate standards for products, supermarket standards for stocking and expiration, the consumer buying more than necessary—billions of pounds of food are wasted. Diverting some of that food from feeding the landfill, Food for Free aims to bridge the gap “between waste and want” by feeding the food insecure. Once per week, Food for Free makes its rounds around the Cambridge area; in just the Harvard dining halls, the organization collects more than a ton of food.

Though much different in subject than the earlier portions of the symposium, this presentation still highlighted what I found to be the core of the event. I think our demand for food in our busy lives has detached us not only from nature and seasonal food production, as Mr. Ward found, but also ourselves. Rather than mindfully eat, we either restrict ourselves to diets, or resort to fast food and junk food, both of which work to distance us from the physical and mental balance food can provide. And last, once we we’re done, I think there is a tendency to forget about where food goes, or who it may feed the second time around. All in all, the symposium lived up to its name: Food Better is not simply a year-long program, but a verb to live by.