Chew on This: Sustainable Food with Cultural Flavors

A garden

What did you eat for dinner last night? How about this morning for breakfast? Have you been to Fourth Street’s “Restaurant Row” lately? Whether you’re on or off of IU’s meal plan, food is something we all can talk about, even as we have different palates and preferences. While not as ubiquitous as conversations about food, we also often hear the term ‘sustainability’ on our campus. But what does that term actually mean in relationship to what we eat? And who is “we,” anyway?

Our campus recently hosted its annual SustainIU Week with the theme of “Sustainability in an Unequal World.” One of the keynote speakers, Tufts professor Julian Agyeman, explained that for food to be sustainable—fresh, healthy, locally grown without toxic chemicals and with fair labor practices—it must also account for cultural differences. According to this view, sustainable food and food justice require growing items that appeal to the tastes of various community members and their unique cultural experiences. In my case, as someone of Puerto Rican descent, I grew up consuming regular amounts of white rice and beans, with plenty of cilantro and oregano for flavoring. How about you?

Exemplifying a culturally-oriented sustainable food effort in action on our campus, La CASA, IU’s Latinx Cultural Center, is planning a garden with support from the Bloomington Community Orchard at IU (BCO-IU). This collaborative initiative is the only one of its kind and, given interest from other cultural groups and communities, BCO-IU members are hopeful that La CASA is just the first of many such collaborations. La CASA director Lillian Casillas has been an integral part of this effort and encourages students to have a direct role in the garden—from planting, to harvesting, to cooking. During one of our planning meetings, we agreed to plant the following items this spring: tomatoes, hot peppers, sweet potatoes, corn, squash, cucumbers, beans, sunflowers, lavender, mint, cilantro, and parsley, as well as some fig, plum, apple, and magnolia trees. La CASA members’ ability to locally grow and enjoy culturally significant fruits, vegetables, and herbs advances the just sustainable food approach advocated by Professor Agyeman.

Indiana University Latino Cultural Center

So, should you find yourself walking down Fourth Street with some friends in the near future, ready to sample some “international” fare, the ingredients and dishes you might encounter needn’t be the opposite of sustainable food necessarily. They could be one and the same, and that’s food for thought.

For information on topics and opportunities related to food, sustainability, and culture, check out these resources:

– Join the Real Food Challenge movement on IUB’s campus. “Real Food” signifies food that is fair (including farm worker justice via fair wages and safe working conditions), humane (including factory farm animal conditions), local, and ecologically-sound (including impacts on water, air, global climate disruption, soil, and resource depletion). Interested students are encouraged to sign a petition enjoining President McRobbie to sign the Real Food Commitment, which would require IU to shift its purchases to 20 percent Real Food by 2020. Take two minutes to sign the petition  and “like” Real Food IU on Facebook to be part of the movement.

– Volunteer at IU’s Hilltop Gardens. Volunteers are welcome throughout the year; more information can be found on Hilltop’s website.

– Volunteer with Sprouts Garden at IU. The group’s call-out meeting is on March 23rd, 6-8pm in Ballantine Hall 149. Check out the group’s Facebook page.

– Read up on specific examples of affordable and sustainable food options on campus.

– Visit the Crimson Cupboard. IU’s local food pantry is located at 800 N. Union St.

– Participate in the IU World’s Fare. This event includes food options from a variety of cultures represented by the IU community.

Kathleen de Onis

Associate Instructor & Office of Sustainability Intern

Kathleen de Onís is a third-year PhD student pursuing a degree in Communication and Culture. She holds an MA degree from the University of Montana and a BS from Northwestern University. Her research examines coalitional possibilities and community engagement with decarbonization projects, particularly solar energy development and energy and climate justice for island nations. In addition to her research, Kathleen is an Associate Instructor who teaches Communicating Sustainability. She is delighted to be the Office of Sustainability Education and Research Working Group intern this academic year, as we consider our collective Grand Challenges, including imagining and enacting more sustainable environments and relationships at IU-Bloomington and beyond.

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