Quixuan, Andreas, Costa, and Nina are students from ETH Zurich and UC Davis participating in a northern California study tour, “Tackling Food System Challenges with IT Innovation." The tour explores the role of IT in addressing the food system challenge of ensuring food and nutrition security for a growing global population. In this post, they consider the potential of high-tech solutions being developed to improve seeds and ultimately contribute to global food security.
After a tour of the University of California, Davis dining halls and learning how this campus is working to create a sustainable campus food system, we consider the challenges of diversity, transparency, and sustainability on university campuses.
Fair trade, locally grown, sustainably sourced
Entering a massive campus dining hall like the one at UC Davis can be overwhelming. The possibilities of food options are endless. The diversity of food can be seen – not just at the cultural level, but also in terms of health claims. The iced tea on tap is fair trade, the steamed Napa cabbage comes from the student farm, and the black bean burger is vegan. It’s clear that the Sustainability Program at the UC Davis Dining Services makes a concerted effort to sustainably source their food. They try to reduce food waste, integrate locally sourced and campus-sourced produce, and promote a diverse array of food choices to UC Davis students.
From a food systems perspective, diversity is a controversial topic. UC Davis is definitely progressive in the sense that they label their dish labels, since many other American campus halls don’t offer nor label options. Outside of America, the idea of food diversity takes on a different meaning. Chinese universities, for example, cater to the food traditions of the different regions of China, but struggle in controlling food waste. In Switzerland, there is a completely different menu every day in dining halls, which differs from American universities like UC Davis that serve variations on the same dish regularly. Additionally, Switzerland showcases the sources for their meat, which provides a new dimension of information to consumers’ foods and promotes transparency.
Transparency in food provides a link between consumers and the food they eat. In Switzerland, the meat sourcing and the public backing of dining halls by private and non-profit organizations showcases one definition of transparency. At UC Davis, transparency can be defined by the connection between local or campus-grown food and the growing number of student employees that work at the dining halls. These students not only link their fellow classmates to their food, but can take what they learn about the food they are serving and inform their food philosophies. It can give students an increased awareness of their food, which is highlighted by an array of educational food posters posted throughout the dining halls.
Education, awareness, and transparency
While UC Davis Dining Services promotes food education, awareness, and transparency, there are some issues with the dining hall system. The most notable of these is the lack of transparency behind the food waste and the health implications of the all-you-can eat system that UC Davis offers to its students. Students may feel a disconnect between where their food waste is being diverted to when they can’t see or physically divert the food waste themselves. The dining hall is one of the few food locations on campus that does not allow students to divert their own waste. Additionally, the buffet system means that while portions are controlled and healthy food is served, overeating and the abundance of unhealthy choices like soda, pizza, and burgers still pose a problem to college students.
While UC Davis promotes sustainable local sourcing and healthy food choices, it can still fall short. Even if the pizza at Davis is maybe more sustainable and healthy than conventional pizza, it is still a pizza that converts its healthy, clean ingredients into an unhealthy nutrition source for students. If UC Davis Dining Services wants to truly promote a healthy and sustainable food environment, it needs to transform its amazing ingredients into healthy and sustainable dishes that helps alleviate the stigma of unhealthy foods as student staples.
Blog authors: Qixuan Zhang, Andreas Schmidli are studying at ETH Zurich and Constantine Spyrou and Nina Fontana are students at UC Davis.
This study tour is part of ETH Meets California, a 10 day event organized by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH Zurich) that brings some of its top researchers and students to California to unravel the mysteries of science and technology in an exchange of ideas with west coast counterparts in academia and industry.