Toronto university begins dance with “local and sustainable” food
Biggest school on the continent agrees to buy good food from the biggest protected chunk of farmland in North America, in a signal that universities everywhere may become movers and shakers for sustainability.

By Wayne Roberts


Photo by Debbie Lifshen

Big step into local food eased by incremental approach

The first sustainable and local food on the plates of University of Toronto students are dairy products, salad ingredients, processed tomatoes and other seasonal products, according to Anne MacDonald, the university’s director of ancillary services. Eggs from within the roughly 124-mile radius of Toronto are the next item being studied.

Most of the produce replaces fresh lines from elsewhere, meaning little new prep protocol, MacDonald explained. She made sure purchasing was no more difficult than with the previous suppliers, further easing the transition for those handling the logistics at the 70,000-student, multi-site school.

It was “not hard” to get administrative buy-in because of an incremental approach, which she characterizes as experimental for the 2006-2007 school year. Decision makers felt it was a “good thing to do,” would mean high-quality food and would support the local economy, she explained.

Initial response on the limited offerings is good. “The students love the chocolate milk,” she quipped.

The Toronto Star newspaper ran the following article about the agreement between Local Flavour Plus, the University and their food service provider: University serves up fare with a conscience.

-- Greg Bowman

Posted October 12, 2006: The University of Toronto (U of T) has shot into the world lead of universities supporting the relationships and infrastructure for a local food system.

The mid-September launch of the new program to introduce local and sustainably-produced food to cafeterias and eateries serving its 70,000 students is “the major new crop of relationships that’s being harvested today,” prominent radio broadcaster Mary Wiens told over 200 well-wishers gathered at Hart House Circle for speeches and food samples. This commitment to Ontario farmers “is an excellent example of how a university can get involved as a good neighbor,” U of T provost and vice-president Vivek Goel said.

The U of T deal is not a first. About 200 campuses across North America, including such big Ivy League names as Yale and Vassar, already have some kind of farm-to-college program. Students on about 60 campuses around the continent enjoy food grown by fellow students on their own learning grounds.

But the U of T deal puts farm-to-school connections on a whole new scale. It brings together eaters at the largest university on the continent with farmers in North America’s largest—at 725,000 hectares (556,000 acres)—protected peri-urban greenbelt of prime farmland. It pairs two old words—local and sustainable—into a new phrase for the latest food trend. And it lets an emerging economic superpower show its stuff.

The U of T’s new farmers aren’t just local. They also follow sustainable practices. Get used to those two formerly distinct words—local and sustainable—rolling off your tongue together. It will soon have the same mouth feel as macaroni and cheese, research and development, theory and practice, health and well-being, equity and diversity, peanut butter and jelly. In this age of convergence, policy innovation more often than not consists of coupling something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue.

“Local and sustainable” now a brand

Local and sustainable is the new kid on the food block, edging up against the supermarket and junk food juggernaut of distant and unsustainable, as well as growing market segments that might be described as distant and organic (organic strawberries from across the continent, for instance) and local but not particularly sustainable (local eggs from factory barns, for example).

Local Flavour Plus (www.localflavourplus.ca), which helped set the rules for the deal between U of T and its food service companies, gives its okay to farmers who’ve met the most comprehensive standards in the world for sustainability. Local Flavour Plus-certified farmers are local producers who follow practices ensuring low pesticide use, no use of genetically-engineered materials, high conservation of energy and biodiversity, and careful measures of animal and farmworker welfare. Such standards go beyond organic, which regulates a strict ban on certain farm inputs (synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and so on), but doesn’t address factors as such as the distance food travels, packaging around the food or labor standards.

The U of T deal is the first world-class trial of this comprehensive approach to labeling the new food category—local and sustainable. (I would quote Lori Stahlbrand, the president of Local Flavour Plus, on such matters, but this would raise questions as to my objectivity, since I am her husband.)

This food program might just be a warm-up exercise for the emerging economic and environmental heft of universities. Post-secondary institutions constitute about 10,000 points of light across North America, with unmatched purchasing power—if US universities were a country, they would be the 21st biggest economy in the world, while in Canada, university R&D [Research and Development] contributes more to the GNP [Gross National Product] than the pulp and paper or auto industries—that could set the standard for wages in medium-sized cities, energy-efficient buildings and equipment, lifecycle resource (aka waste) management, alternative transportation, edgy Latin Quarters and local, sustainable food for miles around. They could also ground teaching and research in experiential on-the-ground learning that helps students base their lifeplans on a strong sense of personal agency that links education and life energy—words that belong together as much as theory and practice or local and sustainable.

Opportunities for exercising and sharing this new species of soft and hard power inspire a bracing new book, Planet U: Sustaining the World, Reinventing the University, by Michael M’Gonigle and Justine Stark. Wedging their experiences at the University of Victoria in British Columbia onto international trendlines, their scenarios far surpass anything that was entertained by student radicals of the 1960s (mea culpa) in terms of a “red university.” Their “green university” is about uplifting and transforming both the educational process, and what they call the “shadow curriculum” of acceptable operational practices in respected institutions in the business of preparing for the future.

Engines for global sustainability?

By fostering new values and businesses, they write, university-based change “would not entail an old-fashioned revolution of one class against another, but a gradual transition by people in place against an inherited structure of spatial dependency. In this way, the challenge of global sustainability is unlike any social struggle of the past.”

I never expected that a university would ever use its purchasing power and prestige to put local and sustainable food on the map, which only goes to show you how easy it is to slip into bad thinking habits. Many of us are used to thinking about the world as controlled by “them,” and the glass of power being at least half-empty rather than at least partly filled.

Power corrupts, but absolute powerlessness corrupts absolutely, the old saying should go, because we too often miss the opportunities and responsibilities of exercising power in a fluid and multi-polar world, where power is often absent because of lack of empowerment, a casualty of the “use it or lose it” syndrome.

How many Torontonians imagine their city to be a centre of higher education, with 200,000 post-secondary students, about 10 percent of the population? There’s barely a student ghetto or quarters in town, let alone other signatures of its demographic, social, economic and environmental potential. So universities get stuck as centres of higher earning, rather than higher learning.

The ivory tower wields a lot of power, much of it subject to the direct pressure of students, staff and alumni, as well as the indirect pressures of government financiers and public opinion. As the boiler room of a knowledge—and innovation-centred economy—there’s a reason why major corporations strive to sponsor, influence and frame what goes on in the halls of academe—universities belong in the ranks of the heavy lifters.

Bon Appetit.