President Hansen on ‘Bates Contemplates Food’

In August 2008, President Elaine Tuttle Hansen spoke with Bates College staff writer Doug Hubley about the initiative Nourishing Body and Mind: Bates Contemplates Food. Here are edited excerpts from their conversation.

DH: What’s the intent behind Bates Contemplates Food?

President Hansen: We have two primary objectives.

The first is educational. We want to add to the understanding and knowledge about food on campus, about where our food comes from, about the food system at Bates, and about the larger food system in which Bates is embedded. We don’t want to forget, in celebrating how we all eat, that there are big social problems associated with the food system — from our dependence on petroleum and corn to diet-related diseases such as obesity; from species extinction to global hunger.

We want to put everything we’re talking about into those bigger frames. We want to raise consciousness. We want to educate ourselves. We want to dispel our own ignorance and complacency by talking about these issues. And bringing it closer to home, we want to explore why, for Bates, a strong and healthy food culture is so important to the educational mission.

The second objective is just to celebrate, make visible and therefore enhance the impact of what’s already going on at Bates. It’s a kind of typical Bates story: Scratch the surface of an issue and you find out there’s a lot more going on than you thought there was.

So in practical ways, we aim to learn more about what Dining Services is doing — I don’t think people have any idea, except [Dining Services director] Christine Schwartz herself. And what’s going on in the curriculum and the co-curriculum, through the teaching and research interests of our faculty, and through our students’ activities in the local area.

DH:You trace the inspiration for Bates Contemplates Food to two happenings: the opening of the new dining Commons in early 2008, and a major, anonymous gift of $2.5 million to support Bates’ purchases of local, natural and organic food.

ETH: Those things happening at the same time prompted me to think, How can we foreground all that’s going on? For example, we knew that Michael Pollan was coming as the Otis Lecturer to talk about his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and perhaps his recent book, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto.

I gathered together a few people who were interested in this topic — of course, we had Christine Schwartz there, as well. And we sat around a table, about 20 students, staff members and faculty, and we were just blown away by how much was already going on at Bates.

We were impressed with the sense of how much Bates is already part of that quiet movement in the country, and in the world, that’s looking at the challenges of our food systems today. So we have a story to tell about our accomplishments and our aspirations that we haven’t really begun to articulate. This year will be a chance to do that. And again, I think it’s a story that goes to the heart of the school’s educational mission, as a residential undergraduate liberal arts college.

DH:What’s your sense of the complexity of making food choices?

ETH: Food and eating touch every aspect of living together in community. Because what we eat, how we grow and harvest and prepare it, whether we eat alone or we eat with people — in all these choices we’re expressing something about our identity and our culture. And we’re learning something every time we eat, whether we know it or not.

Most people want to make a good decision about food — a healthy decision, an ethical decision, a pleasurable decision. They want all of those three things at once. The problem is, it’s so difficult to make choices when we don’t have all the information. Partly we don’t have it because it’s obscured, partly because science doesn’t have all the answers.

If we’re looking to make healthy choices, I think we’re all incredibly confused by the fact that there’s a new study every day that either tells us that something we’re eating is either very, very bad for us, or very, very good for us. And you feel kind of whipsawed around by the news.

Of course our choices involve factors beyond personal health. Take wine. I was having dinner with some friends who started to order an Australian wine, and then changed the order to California wine, because they were concerned about the “food miles” of the Australian — the distance the wine had been shipped.

But later I was reading about how complicated the food-mile issue is. Some studies suggest that it’s more sustainable to drink Australian wine, or French or Italian wine, than Californian, because a bottle transported by ship or by air has a smaller carbon footprint than a California bottle shipped by truck.

So these are surprisingly complex issues. And as an educational institution, our job is to make sure people are aware of the complexities so that they don’t think they can always have all of the answers. It doesn’t mean you don’t make choices and act — I’m not trying to say that it’s so complex that you either stop eating or stop caring; that would be a false conclusion as well. We just need to be curious, thoughtful, and engaged in these issues.

The way we cook our food, the way we eat our food: It’s all about human culture. It is what we all have in common. It’s a basic need that we have turned into both a great pleasure and a great problem — we’ve managed to convert it into both of those things.

DH:What’s an appropriate role for a school like Bates to take in raising awareness of food issues?

ETH: We want to educate our students to act prudently, and to think about sustainability when they eat. This wonderful new gift will help us feed the Bates community healthy food, and our communal reflection on food and eating will help us nourish minds as well as bodies.

If we want people to make healthy, ethical choices, they’ve got to be educated. We’re educating people who will govern both the policies and the practices of the future. So, I think that it’s natural for Bates, or any college, to promote deeper understanding of this issue. This isn’t all about personal good and private benefit and individual pleasure —although it’s also about that. It’s about the public policies that should be reinforced by our government and by the climate of opinion that shapes people’s choices at large. So, there’s that educational mission.

And then, if you think about what we’re trying to be as an intentional residential educational institution, it takes on even more importance. For us to model and talk about things in reality, in our own daily practice, that we’re also talking about in the classroom seems to me profoundly important — to walk the walk.

DH:We hear a lot about communal dining as a particularly “Bates” practice. Why is it valuable?

ETH: In an intentional residential community, where you’re trying to educate a whole human being for life, the place where you eat together as one community serves much more than a practical, functional necessity. Communal dining has always been part of the Bates experience — although it wasn’t communal for men and women together until the late 1960s.

But our students get healthy food and indelible memories from their eating experiences in Commons. And it seems clear to me that in the high-tech, fast-paced, competitive world that we’re preparing our students for, we are also bound and determined to ensure that human interaction is still at the core of their experience here.

So, that makes Commons the obvious site of rich interactions. Whether students are discussing a theory they’ve learned in class, arguing about a political event or finding out what happened at the weekend party, Commons is the informal — but really powerful — forum that connects people with each other. It’s really an extension of the classroom, in my view — the Bates classroom broadly defined — where students feel liberated to express themselves, to test their assumptions, to challenge one another, and to have a good time while they’re doing it.

And it was the students, after all, who said to the master planning process that we want one Commons.

The architects arrived on campus with this model of distributed dining that in larger places is an attempt to make the community we have. We were so lucky that our students pointed out to us that we already had a community — based on the idea of one Commons — one place, where after spending their days going in a million different directions and being very busy and in the world, they could get this daily dose of the conversations they value, remember and learn best in.

DH:What are the salient distinctions in Bates’ approach to food ?

ETH: That’s a big question. There are very good reasons that we don’t outsource our dining services, and that food is not a trivial part of the way we are, and aim to be, a community.

What’s really special at Bates is the commitment of the Dining Services staff, from the top down and the bottom up, to serving the educational mission and to providing healthy, responsible food choices for students.

In many ways, Christine Schwartz and her staff think of this as a family that they’re feeding. It’s a miracle, I think, that Dining Services is able to feed 1,700 students 4,000 meals a day and still have this sense of intimacy and the connection that they make through the buying of the food, the preparing of the food, the planning of the menus, the serving of the food, and then the recycling at the other end.

DH:There’s no such thing as a “typical” donation to Bates, but the $2.5 million gift supporting Bates’ use of farm-fresh, natural and organic foods certainly stands out. What is its distinctive value?

ETH: This is a really remarkable gift, coming from a Bates alum whose career is not focused on food and yet who has this broad interest in all the important issues of food.

I am so glad that we have a donor with this vision. People often give to support faculty and curriculum and programs, and that’s necessary and wonderful. But here is a gift that actually does supports operations and does recognize that there is a financial cost to doing the ethically, morally right thing. It says to us, “I understand and I want to help. I want to make feasible what I believe is important for the future and the present.”