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Common Reading Experience tackles food issues

Posted on 08.21.2013

Figuring out where our food comes from and who sets the prices will be at the center of this year’s Common Reading Experience at the University of Indianapolis. The book that was distributed this year to incoming freshmen is “Bet the Farm,” by Frederick Kaufman, a journalist and professor at City University of New York.

The Common Reading Experience began last year to encourage freshmen to start discussions during new student experience courses. It also kicks off the annual university lecture series. According to Executive Director of Student Services Dan Stoker, this year’s theme is “Stepping Up.”

“The idea behind ‘Stepping Up’ is basically not just talking about issues and problems, in terms of societal concerns. It’s actually addressing and taking actions,” he said. “… So we’re going to be exploring the issues about food and raising that awareness in terms of food availability, food accessibility, the quality of food, the funding and the cost of food.”

According to Stoker, about 750 freshmen have received a copy of “Bet the Farm,” and remaining copies will be available in the bookstore. He said that a committee selected the book last year because it is not as well known as similar books by Michael Pollan and because of how objectively the author writes.

“I think coming from a journalist’s perspective, it [the book] is asking questions in a very different way, as opposed to coming from somebody who is just completely integrated in the food culture. So his point in doing it wasn’t at all to say, ‘Stop eating this,’ or ‘Do this, don’t do this.’”

While Stoker hopes the discussion will be a valuable lesson for the entire campus community, Kaufman said that writing “Bet the Farm” taught him something as well. Kaufman said that through his research, he learned that many people go hungry not because there is a lack of food, but because they just cannot afford it.

“I wanted to bring the Food Movement forward, to push us a step beyond Michael Pollan, to move beyond the sense that the affluent consumer on his or her own can right the system, and to show how the largest financial institutions in the world came to transform the basis of life itself—that is, food—into just another way to make a buck,” he said. “If the takeaway is a discussion of global food production and the inequality of food distribution, I’m happy.”

The discussion will begin on Thursday with a presentation by Assistant Professor of English Kevin McKelvey, after which students can engage in discussion groups.

McKelvey, who grew up in rural Lebanon, Ind., gardening and helping neighboring farmers, said that discussing food issues is important.

“In Indianapolis, I’ve worked a lot with urban agriculture…. So from that experience, I’ve just become aware of food issues like food access and food deserts and what that means for hunger and poverty in Indianapolis and other areas,” he said.

On Saturday, there will be food-centric service projects coordinated by Circle-K International. During the service projects, freshmen will help with gardening at KI EcoCenter, Urban Acres and Global Peace Initiatives or work in the food pantry at Gleaners Food Bank.

“One thing I really like about UIndy a lot is a lot of our students come to us having already done a lot of volunteering and service work,” McKelvey said. “And, you know, what I like to do is kind of take that ethic and build on it, so that students are the ones leading the service or coming up with the plans.”

One idea that has taken root is a UIndy campus garden, although McKelvey said that it is still in the planning phase. He said that there is a lot of student interest and relevance to academic programs, such as community health, sociology and sustainability. The only problem is finding space.

“As you know, we don’t have big open lots of pristine farm ground around campus,” he said. “But we’re going to look at a model using small plots and vacant lots around campus.”

Looking at where food comes from might be expected to cause problems for the people who provide food on campus, Polk Food Services. However, Chef Dan Phillips, who is almost done reading “Bet the Farm,” has been working to provide local foods for a while.

“Polk Food Service, we source everything locally, if possible. Of course, you know we can’t get pineapples locally or bananas,” he said. “… Last year, the sustainability committee, along with Polk Food Services, established a 300-mile radius to consider it [the food] local for UIndy. So that includes most of the midwest.”

Stoker said that he has coordinated with PFS for a lunch called Home Grown UIndy, which will take place on Sept. 5 on Smith Mall and feature all Indiana food products.

“What I have designed, and what we’re trying to do, is not create a farmers’ market, because that is not sustainable. We can’t organize a campus farmers’ market every week,” he said. “But what I wanted to do was to be able to show students, faculty and staff where they can go to get fresh fruits and vegetables locally, either directly from the farmers or you go and pick it yourself.”

Phillips said that students have been more concerned about where their food comes from in recent years. He said that this food-consciousness has changed their dietary demands, as well.

“Students are requiring less processed foods. They want more homemade, scratch items, and we’ve tried to hit the curve and do more things like that,” he said. “Quality-wise, I believe it’s better; production-wise, it’s just a little more labor-intensive if we create things from scratch.”

According to Kaufman, in order to correct the current food system and make nutritious food available for everyone, many labor-intensive actions will have to be taken. However, Kaufman said that change is possible if people really want it.

“Markets are not sacrosanct. Men and women created them, so men and women can transform them,” he said. “If we demand change in the food system, it will happen—which is not to say reform won’t take a great deal of time and effort.”


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