by Zinta Aistars
Kalamazoo College alumni laboring in the fields of food matters are many and diverse, but they share two qualities: a passion for feeding people quality food, and an awareness of those without a place at the table - the hungry.
Nicolette Hahn Niman '89, lawyer, rancher, and author of Righteous Porkchop: Finding a Life and Good Food Beyond Factory Farms, is one of several such alumni, profiled below. On a Homecoming (2009) visit to the "K" campus, the food activist spoke to an audience of students, faculty and staff, and community members about what she terms "mindful eating."
"So many of us are sensing that something is wrong with our food, with the way that we eat," Hahn Niman says. "I had always considered myself an enlightened eater. I tried not to overeat, watched fat content, and included lots of fresh fruits and vegetables in my diet. I had even become a vegetarian as a college freshman. As a child, I'd spent time on farms and had witnessed my mother grow herbs and vegetables for our table in her backyard garden. Yet as an adult, I rarely worried about what had happened to my food before it landed on my plate. It seemed both unknown and unknowable. How the hens that laid my eggs were fed and how they lived wasn't on my radar screen. To a degree, this was willful ignorance. I vaguely suspected that if I saw how those chickens were living, I wouldn't like it. And then what would I do? It was better not to know, or so it seemed."
But then life opened an unexpected door, a career change for the Kalamazoo biology and French major, and Hahn Niman, then Hahn, learned about the harsh realities of food factories. Hahn saw how chickens were living. She toured the country to observe how we raise dairy and beef cattle, pigs, and other livestock for food. What she saw moved her to action. Hahn learned about CAFOs - concentrated animal feeding operations. She witnessed willful pollution and contamination, the unnecessary suffering of animals, the questionable feed provided to livestock, and the resulting damage done to both animal and human.
It all started with a speech by Robert Kennedy, Jr. in Kalamazoo, in 1999. Hahn was in the audience. Hahn recalls, "Kennedy spoke to a packed room about how, as he put it, corporations were 'treating the planet like a business in liquidation,' spoiling and exhausting natural resources that belong to every American citizen. He and his fellow environmental lawyers were holding these companies responsible, using the federal environmental laws, especially the Clean Water Act, to force polluters to pay for their environmental damage. Listening to Bobby Kennedy speak that night I realized he was describing exactly the work that I should be doing."
Hahn had been working as a corporate lawyer and been a Kalamazoo city commission member for two terms, but had not yet felt the call for the meaningful cause she had been seeking. Crossing paths with Kennedy led to a job offer as senior attorney for the senator's Waterkeeper Alliance, an environmental group based in New York City. Hahn launched a national campaign to reform the corporate livestock industry.
Hahn's work led to a meeting with Bill Niman, founder of the natural meat company, Niman Ranch, where she became a rancher - even while maintaining her own vegetarianism - raising animals with access to pastures, and without hormones or drugs in their feed. Righteous Porkchop is both an exposé and memoir about her work in environmental law, her views on the need to return to traditional farming and, as she terms it, righteous eating.
Another "K" alumna involved in food matters is Carla Kaiser '04, senior manager of community partnerships at City Harvest, the nation's oldest food rescue organization, dedicated to feeding the hungry in New York City. City Harvest picks up excess food from area restaurants, grocers, manufacturers and wholesalers, and farmers markets, then delivers the food to soup kitchens, food pantries, day care and senior citizen centers, homeless shelters and other places that serve those in need.
Kaiser's experience with various food efforts is long and varied. Showing an early interest in what she terms 'simple living,' Kaiser, a sociology major, grew up believing that we must be aware of the ecological footprint we create. She was president of ENVORG, the College's environmental student organization. Her study abroad experience was in Costa Rica, where she studied sustainable development and researched civic engagement. After graduation, she joined the Lutheran Volunteer Corps and was placed at a farmer's market and neighborhood organization in Minneapolis, exposing her to local food and food justice issues. She then worked with Wellstone Action!, a national center for training and leadership development, and did program work for the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP), coordinated the Sow the Seeds Fund, worked with Renewing the Countryside, and joined a consulting company whose primary client was the Kellogg Foundation. Later, she moved to greater New York City to get a new perspective, and work on food, hunger, and social justice.
"I've chosen to work on the issue of food and hunger because it is something that is tangible, with implications for justice and the environment," she says. "At City Harvest, we collect prepared and perishable food that would otherwise be wasted, and we transport it immediately, safely, and at no cost to the soup kitchens and other emergency food programs." City Harvest is a local organization of which the world has taken note. Similar food rescue programs have been launched in Germany, England, India, South Africa, Brazil, Israel, and elsewhere.
"We may not be able to solve the problem of hunger," Kaiser says, "but we can certainly lessen it. We need farmers who produce food for human consumption, not just cash crops subsidized by the government. We need community involvement in the process and recognition that the problems with our current food system have affected most deeply those with few resources. Governments, industries, companies must invest in changing their model to produce food, with an effort to feed the hungry - it's everyone's problem. While recently there's a growing awareness of environmental issues, we also need to keep a focus on how we can feed our growing populations with healthy and affordable food."
Kaiser's enthusiasm is shared by Holly Anderson '09, a recent human development and social relations graduate. "The most remarkable aspect of my time at 'K' is the degree to which "K" involved me in much wider communities," she says. "The Mary Jane Underwood Stryker Institute for Service-Learning and my involvement with Farms to K were absolutely imperative to my liberal arts education. I was constantly pushed, constantly thrown outside my comfort zone, and constantly encouraged to connect global needs to a local cause."
The seeds for Farms to K were sown in a First Year Seminar called "Commitments," taught by Associate Professor of English Amelia Katanski. "We were researching farms to cafeteria projects across the country and the possibility of implementing a similar program at Kalamazoo College," Anderson says. "As our class time came to an end, there was a group of us interested in creating a farm-to-cafeteria program at 'K.' We continued to meet, research and plan."
The small group became
"... if I saw how those chickens were living, I wouldn't like it. And then what would I do?"a recognized student organization called Farms to K in 2005, and Anderson took a leadership role. "There are many reasons to eat locally grown foods. What is important, I think, is that everyone finds a reason that resonates with them. Reducing or limiting intake of processed foods, avoiding pesticides and other chemicals, limiting energy expenditure in transporting produce, or simply enjoying the community atmosphere of shopping at a farmer's market - for me, it's important to take part in a community. It's important to support our local markets and food co-ops, and our farmers, and to live within a beautiful community that we are all working to create in a sustainable manner."
"Commitments" is now called "Cultivating Community," and is still taught by Katanski. She and Alison Geist, director of Mary Jane Underwood Stryker Institute for Service-Learning, co-advise Farms to K.
"People of diverse backgrounds and perspectives can come to the table with very different approaches to solving world hunger and improving the quality of our food," says Katanski. "Our approach in Farms to K is first to raise awareness about the foods we eat and how those foods reach our table."
From that starting point, adds Geist, "we raise awareness of health and sustainability on campus, address food security in the local community, promote public and community commitment to reduce green house gas emissions, and support fair labor practices, all in partnership with diverse community and campus organizations."
Last fall's seminar's primary service-learning project was to gather data for a green mapping project by working with an epidemiologist at Kalamazoo County Health and Human Services. Students developed survey instruments and interviewed dozens of community members to assess the availability of local food in restaurants and grocery stores. "County health officials are using some of these findings to inform a new countywide Healthy Communities consortium," says Geist.
Other projects: students helped prepare foods from locally grown produce to take to area shelters and non-profits for distribution to the hungry; they planted organic gardens; and they mentored children at Woodward Elementary School to learn how to garden.
"We've held a series of conversations on campus about food and food systems," Geist says, "including panel discussions with farmers, and discussions about women's health and body image. Our food cook-offs are wildly popular, drawing 200 students, staff, faculty, and Kalamazoo residents to eat delicious food prepared by local chefs or campus teams, building a locavore community."
Farms to K continues to meet with the campus cafeteria staff and leadership to discuss bringing more local foods to the college cafeteria.
"It may not be possible to eat locally grown foods all the time," Katanski says. "But it is important to understand the impact we have on our community and the environment in general when we fail to maintain a sustainable lifestyle. Our hope is to get people to think about what they eat when they sit down at the dinner table."
Nicolette Hahn Niman was part of a panel discussion during Homecoming 2009
Carla Kaiser interviewed by Bronx 12 about City Harvest's free produce distribution program in the Bronx
Holly Anderson (middle) at the National Howard R. Swearer Student Humanitarian Award ceremony. Campus Compact gives the Swearer Award annually to five students in the country for creating an innovative approach to addressing a social, educational, environmental, health, economic, or legal issue within a community.