• Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.


When I ask why the poor have no food . . .

Do we teach our students to recognize when a system is broken?

December 19, 2013

A story on NPR's Morning Edition today struck me (even before my first cup of coffee) as exemplifying how broken some of this country's default systems are.  It was titled "This Stanford PhD became a Fruit Picker to Feed California's Hungry".

Presented as a soft news/human interest item, its implications are enormous.  Facts presented/implied included:

  • As a nation, we throw out about 40% of our food.
  • Fruits and vegetables that aren't cosmetically perfect often go unpicked and left to rot in the field.
  • Local food banks can't send volunteers out to glean this produce, due to concerns about liability.
  • One in four residents of Tulare County -- in California's Central Valley, a major area for producing fruits and vegetables -- has to depend on the local food bank for adequate nutrition.  Many of these folks are farmworkers themselves.
  • Poor nutrition, driven in part by lack of good food availability, is driving up local rates of obesity and resultant diabetes.

So, even in a major food-producing region of the USA, folks are going underfed because the industrial/commercial food-supply system doesn't find it profitable to service them.  Or even to let them service themselves.  Like Ireland which, even during the height of the potato famine shipped tons of high-quality produce to England (the famine wasn't due to a total crop failure, but rather to a failure of the crops specifically planted to feed local workers), the Central Valley is organized to feed you and me in the short term but not to feed in the long term the very laborers on whom its productivity depends.

The story shouldn't be that a Stanford PhD quit her career as an epidemiologist to pick fruit.  The story should be all about the problem that her grass-roots efforts aimed to address.  And why a grass-roots effort was necessary.  And why it's exceptional.  Which is to say, why and how the American public has been tacitly conditioned to overlook the broken nature of our food system, or to regard it as a curiosity.

A large portion of that public, it goes without saying, consists of our graduates.  Do we have a responsibility to teach them to recognize systems -- especially dominant systems -- which are inherently broken?

If not us, then who?


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