Living "The Omnivore's Dilemma"

Since high school, I have been involved with sustainability topics mostly pertaining to the urban environment. And though I have tackeld some issues regarding energy and water issues in the city, one topic that is omnipresent in my life, and everyone else's, and yet that gets surprising less attention in the engineering world is food. After all, we eat everyday--we must to survive--and as college students, we must do so on a budget (or in accordance with whatever the dining hall is serving). It's easy to use the excuse that we don't have time or money to care about our food choices, think through where food comes from, or make more environmentally friendly, healthier food selections. In fact, I often still do the same. But after reading Michael Pollan's book "The Omnivore's Dilemma" and unintentionally living some of its lessons in the past week, I must now ask--why can't we be more sustainable in our food choices and save some money?

For those who are unfamiliar with it, Michael Pollan's "The Omnivore's Dilemma" is a fascinating, non-fiction account of one man's journey to understand where his food comes from. In four understandable yet scientific sections, Pollan describes the food industry from agro-business to small organic farmers as he searches for the perfect meal. A gifted journalist, Pollan's prose is both lyrical and hits straight to the point, uncovering some issues lurking under the packaging at the super market. Yet unlike others who simply condemn big agriculture, Pollan seeks opportunities to grow, hunt, and forage his own food to appreciate how to eat seasonally, locally, and in an environmentally-friendly manner as an alternative to simply shopping at a box supermarket. His tale is certainly a must-read for anyone interested in sustainability or food.

For all the praise I heap on this book, I must admit I was somewhat hypocritical. Despite having read this book over a year ago, my eating habits have changed little. Sure I buy organic products and local produce, but I still don't think I have an appreciation for what really goes into food production.

A small window into that world was opened for me this weekend. I never expected it, but I have to say, the experience was both rewarding, relaxing, and, of course, delicious. While some were jetting off to Miami, Cabo, or other beach locales for spring break, I chose to drive two hours to Davis, California, to spend quality time with one of my best friends from high school, Jeff. Though we took different paths after high school, Jeff and I have stayed close and converged into studying and working in the realm of sustainability. Whereas my passion is in buildings and energy systems, Jeff loves food. As a volunteer at the Davis Student Farm and Residence Garden, he helps educate students and community members about growing their own food, eating locally and sustainably, and the impact food choices can have on the planet.

I assumed that our weekend would be full of regaling each other with stories from college and catching up on all we had missed since last we saw each other. Instead, within minutes of my arrival, Jeff turned to me, handed me a cloth bag, and said we had to go get ingredients for dinner. Assuming this meant a stop at the farmer's market and Trader Joe's, I hopped on a bike and rode with him to the park. Expecting a one-stop shop, I was surprised when all we picked up at the market was bread. "The rest," Jeff said, "we'll harvest ourselves."

Our next stop was the Davis Student Farm, where we met Eric, another student farmer. Together the two of them walked me through row after row of vegetables. Some were being grown for sale through the Davis Community Supported Agriculture Program, while others were used for education at the farm itself. Eric and Jeff stopped and pointed out to me several types of plants--asparagus, chard, snap peas, arugula, lettuce, and more--that were growing and just waiting to be picked. From them, I learned how to tell which beets were ready to be pulled, which chard leaves to harvest, and that you must cut asparagus below the ground. And once it's cut, pop it quickly into your mouth for a sweet treat--the bitter taste comes only after it has been cut for a while.

The three of us spent the whole day roaming the farm and the Residence Garden, collecting vegetables that we later tossed into a stir-fry dinner which, with a little garlic and onion, was fantastic. Later that night as we relaxed in Jeff's room talking about old times, I spied "The Omnivore's Dilemma" on the shelf and the significance of my day hit me. I had learned more in one day about agriculture, food, and nutrition than in the past 20 years, and all from spending one day on the farm. In a small way, I had lived Pollan's experience of actually harvesting the ingredients for my food. Reflecting on the knowledge that Jeff and Eric possessed, it occurred to me that agriculture really is an art. A farmer knows when his crops are ready, what tastes best, and how the medley of flavors should best be combined for the enjoyment of the diner. For me, this was a powerful experience, and one I hope to repeat.

The sad part is that so few of us ever get to experience Pollan's journey, or even mine. It is rare to find an organic farm on a campus or in a city where one can volunteer, learn a bit about food, and gain a greater respect for what we eat. College campuses should provide this service, yet few do. With both a mission to provide education to students and a captive audience via the masses who invade the dining hall each day, campuses can and should do more to make students aware of what they eat, where it comes from, and what the implications are for the environment. If possible, farms on campuses should be fostered as learning opportunities. Perhaps then more of us can experience Pollan's journey and confront on a personal level "The Omnivore's Dilemma."