They shut down the Pepsi machines in the University of Portland cafeteria the other day. The plastic bottles of Hunt's Ketchup disappeared. Sugar was replaced with honey from a neighborhood beekeeper. And everything else on the lunch menu, from soup (lentil) to nuts (hazel), was locally grown, baked, milked and mixed. The shrimp was harvested in nearby Netarts Bay, not in Thailand; the herbs were gathered in adjacent Clackamas County, not in California; the chicken was pastured on fields outside Eugene, not imported from the Midwest's vast factory farms. "It's awesome," said Alex Samuels, 19, a freshman from Puyallup, Wash., swigging a drink made from Oregon berries. "We're helping smaller farmers instead of big corporations."
It may seem to lack the ideological passion of antiapartheid or antiwar protests, but the new activist slogan on campuses is "Eat local." Students are rediscovering the political adage that you are what you eat. And colleges are voting with their palates--and their multimillion-dollar food budgets--against an ever more global agricultural industry in which produce travels, on average, 1,500 miles from farm to plate. Posters around the University of Portland campus proclaimed that BUYING LOCAL FOOD IS ONE WAY YOU CAN HELP STOP GLOBAL WARMING ... AIR AND WATER POLLUTION. A racier consciousness-raising stunt was staged at Brown University, where activists published Ripe, a 2005 calendar featuring naked students posing with strategically positioned Rhode Island fruits and vegetables (for August, cantaloupes rest on the buttocks of the women's soccer team).
Will politically correct gastronomy save the family farm? That may be wishful thinking. At the University of Portland, the all-local lunch was merely symbolic--Pepsi was back for dinner. What's meatier is that the university, which serves 22,000 meals weekly, has hiked spending on local and regional products to 40% of its food dollars--up from less than 2% five years ago. "Even the burgers are from Oregon steers," boasts dining manager Kirk Mustain.
Some 200 universities have jumped onto the eat-local haywagon--half of them since 2001, according to the Community Food Security Coalition, an advocacy group based in Venice, Calif. For many of these academic foodies, buying local is only part of an educational mission. Scholars like Oberlin environmental-studies professor David Orr advocate "ecological literacy," tying agriculture to the study of fiction, history, science, economics and politics. In a form of dirty-fingernail "experiential learning," some 45 universities and colleges, from Maine's Bowdoin to Minnesota's St. Olaf, have started campus farms. And courses like Sustainable Food Systems at the University of California at Santa Cruz deconstruct relationships between producers and consumers, with such readings as The Maturing of Capitalist Agriculture: Farmer as Proletarian.