The TakeAway: School-based farming is blooming, a fresh alternative to Big Agra and mounting public health risks that is rooted in our Land Grant tradition of education.
This summer’s recall of more than half billion eggs, on top of last year’s E. coli beef contamination and the salmonella peanut scare, reminds us that the safety of our food supply – like the shaping of laws – relies on processes we’d rather not see. At the macro level, our reliance on mega-farms puts us at the mercy of Big Agra, filthy conditions, and countless private inspectors. Throw in a complicated regulatory system (fifteen federal agencies and more than two dozen congressional committees track America’s food supply, according to the Los Angeles Times), and no wonder we’re confused. How can we be assured that the food we eat is, in fact, safe? One answer arising on campuses across the country: grow our own.
Consumer and food safety advocates tell us that such problems will happen again unless the Senate drafts a new food safety bill that gives the Food and Drug Administration more authority and resources do a better job. Primary responsibilities for food safety currently fall between the FDA and the Department of Agriculture. S.510, the proposed Food Safety Modernization Act (introduced in March 2009), would split the FDA into two parts: one with regulatory authority for food safety, the other having responsibility for drugs and medical devices. Many Democrats and Republicans favor it, as do groups within the food industry, according to a recent NPR report. Opponents include many small farmers and Tea Party supporters, who both worry that it creates market barriers for small and mid-scale farmers while representing “massive expansion” of government regulation of the food industry.
Whatever the solution, as long as we rely upon industrialized agriculture to grace our dinner tables, we’re vulnerable to risk. While the public health solution may be better regulation and oversight, another alternative lies closer to home: in the nooks and crannies of the urban landscape, or those patches of land on college campuses and other places where gardens grow. Last month, we described multiple efforts to finance good food, and the parallel growth in urban agriculture—including educational “master gardener” programs, such as at Rutgers in New Jersey. Yesterday’s Boston Globe reported the recent proliferation of student gardens at Harvard, Babson, Olin, Wellesley, and Williams colleges. Since the 1930s, Boston University has maintained a rooftop greenhouse.
Harvard students tend the community garden, overseen by the Medical School’s Center for Health and the Global Environment (CHGE) as well as Harvard’s Hospitality and Dining Services, Office of Sustainability, Landscape Services, Energy & Utilities, and other faculty and administrators. According to CHGE, the community garden’s objective is to “bring together members of the community to raise awareness about the critical role that food plays in our environment and our health.” (A student blog provides frequent updates.)
So while we examine our egg cartons to see where they’re packed, we can take comfort in the return to roots on many of our nation’s campuses. They’re evoking, on a smaller scale, the Land Grant tradition emanating in the mid- and late-nineteenth century, one of the great civic moments in American history. (The Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890, followed by the Hatch Act of 1897, set aside federal land to establish seventy-some publicly funded agricultural and technical education institutions that would grow to become many of the nation’s great colleges and universities.) Perhaps, on a smaller scale, it’s time to avail ourselves of 21st century agricultural education, and grow our economy, one stalk at a time.