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In Defense of Campus Sustainability Initiatives

A response to the National Association of Scholars report, "Sustainability: Higher Education’s New Fundamentalism."

EDITOR'S NOTE: A few weeks ago, we reported on a paper released by a group called the National Association of Scholars (NAS) titled "Sustainability: Higher Education’s New Fundamentalism." It seemed to touch a nerve with readers, so we decided to investigate further. We contacted Middlebury College, as its sustainability program was specifically cited by NAS as an example of what they were criticizing, but Middlebury declined to comment further except to note that they are proud of their campus sustainability efforts. One who did agree to comment was John Turenne, a well-known consultant to colleges and other institutions on sustainability issues through his company Sustainable Food Systems. Turenne is a former executive chef for Aramark at Yale University, where he introduced a number of sustainability oriented practices before forming his own consulting company.

Here is his response...

When first considering to comment on the National Association of Scholars report on sustainability initiatives on college campuses, I hesitated. To be frank, my reasoning for pause had to do with agreement of the message. Or at least part of it.

Here I am, a long time advocate for sustainable food commitments at schools, colleges, healthcare, etc., finding agreement in parts of a report criticizing sustainability efforts?! Am I questioning the foundations of my values? It was enough to keep me awake at night.

So I needed to ask myself, where exactly do I stand?

Let me start out by admitting I have a child in college, therefore I am a ‘consumer’ of that institution’s services. So when the topic of the skyrocketing costs of service and tuition came up in the report, I could definitely empathize. In addition to the personal reasoning, my professional experiences played into the confusion. I have been responsible for the operations and fiscal performance of food service at such institutions. Therefore I’m empathetic of the logistical and fiscal challenges foodservice departments face when transitioning from conventional to more sustainable food programs.

The report also talks about much of the world’s overkill and band-wagon approach to sustainability. There’s another term for that in my book. It’s called Greenwashing. I agreed with the report in that context as well.
Have these institutions of higher learning not been the crux of scholarly freedom in the past? So how can a university claim educational liberty on one side, then pressure the consumer into compliance on the other? I have always believed in the freedom of choice – to a limit.

So there’s the proverbial “on the other hand” coming, right? Right. Here it is. First off, I believe ‘sustainable food’ addresses not only the environmental impact of the food system, it also supports local and small businesses; socially conscious ways of treating workers and animals; and the sustainability of our very own bodies - human health and wellbeing. It is these 4 pillars of sustainable food that I always come back to and base my comments on.

I believe we (humans/stewards of this planet), have been making poor decisions for some time now. Decisions that have had a significant effect on the environment, on the way we treat people and the way we have downgraded human health. In other words, we’ve screwed things up.

We need to right this ship. Heck, if we don’t, who will? I trust the statistics that address pesticide and chemical applications killing more than bargained for. I believe it when I read about the agricultural industry’s impact on greenhouse gas through livestock production and petroleum based inputs. I believe when experts prove we’re depleting water sources in order to grow certain foods in places that were not meant to grow food. These are just the tip of the environmental impact food has had. What about the declining health statistics primarily due to our diets? I trust those. Heck, look around at our society, our health costs. It’s impossible not to believe. I believe we need to do something. Action needs to be taken.

So I am grateful someone has taken a stand for a better future. That someone is the college campus. These institutions have the ability to educate our imminent leaders. Hopefully these future captains will right this good ship earth.


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