Food for Thought (and More)

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Serving up a new era of environmental responsibility.

By Amy Gutmann

Penn’s campus hums with activity no matter the season. During the coldest winter months, however, I miss the opportunity to walk across College Green to Walnut Street for our weekly University Square Farmers’ Market. From May through November, local farmers and food producers set up outside of the Penn bookstore. White tents lining the sidewalk shade an abundance of seasonal produce, native flowers, and baked goods. Community members from Penn and West Philadelphia meet and mingle at the market, transforming the corner into a bustling hub.

Beechwood Orchards, a family-owned farm located less than 150 miles from campus, offers a selection of fruits and vegetables at the market. The century-old farm uses a practice known as Integrated Pest Management to protect crops. Rather than regularly treating plants with pesticides, the farm monitors pests and implements non-hazardous preventative measures, applying chemicals only as a last resort. This combination of methods not only prevents pest damage, but also poses less danger to people and the environment.

Understanding my food’s journey from a sunny orchard in nearby Adams County to my kitchen in Philadelphia does more than add points to my gastronomic IQ; it also furnishes a prime example of the environmental movement’s new epoch: food awareness. Since our freshmen read and discussed Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma for the Penn Reading Project two years ago, food-related education and advocacy have been growing. A steady stream of new literature about nutrition and health, and riveting films such as Food, Inc., have stirred public interest with compelling evidence that reflects the spirit of both Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.

Over the years, pollution, environmental stewardship, and energy have captured the imaginations of Penn’s students and faculty members, fueling bold pursuits in teaching and research. Now, food and its effects on our environment and our health have become key factors in our efforts to tackle humanity’s most pressing challenges. Penn, naturally, is at the forefront, bringing our resources to bear through sustainable campus improvements, community partnerships, and pathbreaking research collaborations. 

True to our reputation for innovation, Penn was among the first universities to offset its electricity usage with renewable energy credits, and we remain the number one purchaser of wind-power among our nation’s colleges and universities. While this initiative and our green building, energy conservation, and waste minimization practices comprise the lion’s share of our carbon-saving efforts, we also are educating our students about the links between food choice and climate change. 

This year, we partnered with Bon Appétit Management Company, a dining services provider that has emerged as a model of large-scale sustainable dining operations and a leader in the responsible food movement. The company purchases local, regional, seasonal, and organic ingredients from within a 150-mile radius of Penn. Each day, chefs prepare recipes using these and other environmentally responsible ingredients, including hormone-free milk, cage-free eggs, ocean-friendly seafood, and antibiotic-free poultry and beef, as well as herbs grown in a hydroponic garden in Class of 1920 Commons. 

While serving up locally grown, high-quality foods, Bon Appétit also encourages our students to make healthy choices that come with lower greenhouse gas price tags. According to recent findings published by NASA’s Goddard Institute in Science, carbon and methane account for seventy percent of human-generated global warming. By reducing consumption of meat and dairy and building meals around fresh fruits, vegetables, and grains, our students can reduce their overall impact on the environment. 

In conjunction with our efforts to promote sustainable choices and increase access to fresh and healthy foods on campus, we are also collaborating with our neighbors in West Philadelphia. The Agatston Urban Nutrition Initiative in the Barbara and Edward Netter Center for Community Partnerships has been instrumental in our efforts to increase local engagement.

The initiative provides nutrition education programs in 20 public schools, empowers elementary and high school students through teaching, and promotes the adoption of a healthy lifestyle. Penn students enrolled in our academically-based community service courses apply the knowledge they have gained in nutrition-related courses and help students identify ways in which they can make a difference in their communities, including working to grow fruits and vegetables in school gardens, helping to operate farmers’ markets at two local parks, and training to become nutrition advocates.

We’ve expanded our sustainable practices on campus to create a greener living environment and increased engagement with our neighbors to improve community health. These initiatives have significant local impact, but Penn’s position as a world-class teaching and research university allows us to surpass the bumper-sticker imperative to think globally and act locally. Here, we think and act both locally and globally. Connections between nutrition and health create tremendous opportunities for knowledge integration across disciplines, one of the goals of the Penn Compact. 

At our Institute for Diabetes, Obesity, and Metabolism in the School of Medicine, eminent Penn faculty work together to examine the physical, environmental, and behavioral mechanisms underlying diabetes and obesity, two research areas intimately tied to nutrition. This past summer, the Institute received three stimulus awards to support undergraduate student research. 

An integrated research program within the Institute promotes collaboration among faculty from all 12 Penn schools. In the obesity unit faculty members from disciplines as diverse as anthropology, economics, medicine, and psychology are working across boundaries to examine the complex factors that contribute to the disorder, as well as the health and economic implications of our nation’s obesity epidemic. 

This year, the Institute gained a powerful new member when Penn announced the appointment of Dr. Karen Glanz, one of the world’s foremost public-health scholars, as our ninth Penn Integrates Knowledge Professor and director of our new interdisciplinary Center for Health Behavior Research. Dr. Glanz is renowned for her innovative research in epidemiology, health psychology, and disease prevention. One of her current research projects, funded by a grant from the Department of Agriculture, examines the influence of nutrition and activity environments on obesity. 

Food is fundamental. From enjoying a locally grown plum or trying a vegan meal at Houston Market to cultivating nutrition leaders in our urban schools and designing interventions to improve human health, Penn is ushering in a new epoch of environmental responsibility that will touch the most basic aspect of all of our lives. As we seek solutions together to society’s problems, awareness of food’s tremendous impact will become ever more valuable. That’s more than food for thought; it’s fuel for creativity and quite possibly a recipe for saving the planet.

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