Memory, Chicken Fingers, and Sustainability

by Addison Del Mastro

Chow Line

Last semester, I attended a conference on campus food sustainability held by the wonderful activist organization Real Food Challenge. Taking place over three days, it was a lot to take in. But one part of the conference, in particular, stood out to me.

During a panel discussion, a young man explained how in the last 50 years, most colleges switched from self-operating their dining halls to contracting with giant foodservice corporations. Contracting was rare decades ago, but now, 70 percent of colleges do it.

Then one woman, approaching 70, spoke about her work in dining halls. She had been an employee at the Johns Hopkins dining hall for 39 years. She explained how, in the early 1970s, she had baked fresh bread on premises, and that fresh vegetables would be cut and prepared in-house. Then, over time, less and less fresh food came in—more and more of it was processed. It took less time and labor that way, she said, but that didn’t make it right. 

Something as important as food needs more consideration than just efficiency.

But what really struck me was the fact that she had been there when the last loaf of fresh bread was baked, when the last shipment of fresh, uncut vegetables arrived; that she had seen with her own eyes the change that the rest of us were all merely talking about. It struck me as slightly unsettling that 300 college students and activists should be gathered together with the goal of transforming our food system (in many ways, to bring it back to how it was only a few decades ago) and yet have so little experience of what it once looked like.

In short, as I listened to the oldest person in the room talk about bread and vegetables, I realized that there’s no substitute for memory.

The stereotypical interaction of the progressive know-it-all youth with the old fogey is obviously an exaggeration, but too often young people discount the experience of older folks. A good deal of what we call sustainability today was simple common sense not very long ago. This began to change with the beginning of modern consumerism, in the post-WWII era. But for anyone over 60 or 70, much of their lives took place before this time, so the sustainability-as-common-sense period is still within living memory. 

Yet we are not very far from losing all living connection to this time, and far too little attention has been given to the details of everyday life then.

A few days ago, I experienced another example of how easy it is to forget these things. I sold an old computer modem on eBay, without a power adapter. I was thinking that maybe someone was looking for a replacement modem, and might still have the adapter from their old one. A couple of days after I sent it out, the purchaser messaged me. He hadn’t noticed that I was selling the modem only, and asked why anyone would sell a modem without the adapter. I realized that it didn’t actually occur to him that the adapter and the modem were each useful on their own. 

How different that is from the folks who saved string during the Great Depression, when every little bit counted.

The history books will not record the minutia of everyday life. There are dozens, probably hundreds of habits, tricks, and ways of doing things that will be entirely forgotten if they are not sought out now, in living people’s memory. And though they may be little things, they can still have an impact. 

In another example, my father remarked the other day that berries and tomatoes used to come in cardboard, not plastic, containers. A little thing, maybe. But when there is no one alive who remembers a time when not everything was packaged in plastic, we’ll have lost an important connection to a more sustainable past. Even the most passionate young people will have no way of knowing these details.

Although some new changes are obviously needed to make sustainability work today, we don’t need to reinvent the wheel. It’s already been done, and only recently forgotten. Let’s spend a little more time rediscovering our past.

Addison Del Mastro is a student at Drew University and a program assistant at New Dream.

Photo credit: Edible Rhody