A forum for exchanging ideas

This blog has three functions: (1) a repository of ideas, findings, reflections, readings, and observations from a faculty travelling seminar on sustainability in 2011, and (2) a space for continuing exchange of ideas about how we can carry forward lessons from that tour into our classrooms, our colleges, and our communities, and (3) a place to post links to the many amazing developments that are in the news. The purpose of this space is to help sustain an ongoing seminar-like exchange that can capture and build on ideas from our original seminar.

Updates to this blog will be irregular and occasional, but it can provide a resource for colleges and classes
and other groups that share our enthusiasms, concerns, and common challenges.

Our initial sustainability seminar was funded by the Mellon Foundation,
whose support has been critical to initiatives in faculty development and intellectual exchange.

Local and Sustainable Food report

Report from Food Committee
Jeane Pope (DePauw), Betsy Beymer-Farris (Furman), Helen Young (Middlebury), and Lucy Johnson (Vassar)

Previous experiences and expectations

We acknowledge that our experience with food and food choices shaped our expectations of what we would see in Denmark.  The important food issues for us revolve around crop cultivation techniques (organic versus industrial), place of origin (local versus not, and, if not, how far the food travelled to get to us), quality, and price.  Our decisions about what food to purchase are a complex function of these (and other[1]) features.  Given the choice between local and organic (when a food item is not both), we choose local; we prefer organic over crops from industrial farms, but price also influences our decisions.  In other words, making decisions about what food to buy is complex, incorporating several parameters that reflect each food item’s “ecological/carbon footprint” but had become accustomed to weighing these factors when shopping in the US.

We arrived in Denmark expecting the same sets of choices, the same diversity of options that we have experienced in the US.

It is also important to acknowledge that all of our observations and conversations with Danes and Germans were anecdotal.  We cannot extrapolate our conversations with a few dozen people to the entire countries of Denmark and Germany.

We had not talked very much as a group about our expectations for what we would find in Germany.  This was, perhaps, because our minds were focused on the early part of our itinerary. 


·      In grocery stores in Denmark, organic items are intermingled with “regular” items – there is no “organic section” of the store.  As such, it is easy to see the cost implications of choosing organic foods and, in general, organic items are not significantly more expensive than “regular”.  Organic is always more expensive than “regular” but sometimes only slightly more expensive.  “Okologi” means organic (as seen in this photo) – items are clearly marked on the store shelves.

·      There are more products available as organic in Denmark than in the US, even in
the smaller, less-expensive grocery stores.  From these observations, we suspect that there is a heavy emphasis on organic food.  This makes sense given the Danes’ concern for (and ban of) GMO food items.  They seem to be quite concerned with the quality of the food they purchase. Quality predominates among conversations about food choice and eating habits with Copenhagen and Aarhus residents (those with whom we spoke).  For those who travelled to the US, they mentioned that the quality of the food in Denmark is much higher in general than in the US. The example given was bread. They stated that the bread in the US is highly processed with many choices of that processed bread, “it looks and tastes like cotton”. Whereas in Denmark, the bread is filled with grains, is firm and comes from Denmark. Fresh bread seems to be very important to Danes. They said this notion of “quality” is inherent within Danish culture, but gradually this “ideal” is perhaps eroding in favor of fast, easy, more standardized food (e.g. frozen pizza). We should note that the Danish notion of “quality” is poorly understood given the limited discussions we had with Danes. Therefore, our group discussed the meanings and assumptions behind a notion of quality for Danes. Do the Danish even have an implicit assumption of quality in their food? Is this masked by a trust in government regulations? What we do know is that these issues are heavily debated in the media such as a continued resistance to genetically modified food, to the addition of vitamins and minerals (as in marmite, which needs approval by the Danish government before it can appear in stores[2]). An example of the sort of implicit assumptions Danes may have while purchasing food is with a seafood market. We visited a fish stand and discussed consumer practices. The stand had a map that designed the areas where all the seafood came from. Apparently, Danes do not ask where their seafood comes from because as the shop merchant stated, “they don’t ask because they know it comes from Scandinavia, mainly Denmark aside from Norwegian salmon”. Almost all salmon consumed in Scandinavia is farmed raised in Norway. Interestingly, only one person from Norway discussed the social and environmental issues of farm raised salmon.  This was a discussion between a Norwegian and Dane and the Dane was unaware of the social and environmental concerns of farm raised salmon. Given that salmon is an important source of protein and Omega-3 vitamins for many Danes, it begs the question of how many consumers in Denmark are even aware of the social and environmental impacts of consuming farm raised salmon.

·      Given that it is early spring in Denmark, it is not surprising that we didn’t see a lot of local produce available in grocery stores.  We did see local peas, potatoes, and leeks that were likely grown in open air; we also saw local green onions and tomatoes that must have been grown in greenhouses.

·      There were two types of open-air vegetable markets that are open in Copenhagen at this time.  The first were fruit/vegetables stands associated with ethnic grocery markets. Theses places sold the same assemblage of mostly non-local produce that was available at the grocery stores.  The second was a stand run by a farmer family that was open on Saturday morning.  The vendor didn’t speak much English, so it was difficult to interview her about their growing practices.  However, we did discern that they lived about an hour outside of Copenhagen and came in on Saturday to sell their food.  They had a number of early-spring crops, including potatoes, rhubarb, leeks, and greens.  Additionally, they sold some non-local crops including apples, oranges, avocados, and California dates.   The vendor said that they would sell their own apples later in the season. 

·      We had heard about a large open-air vegetable market located as Israel Platz.  We then learned that it no longer exists and that two adjacent newly built, closed stores will replace this market.  Promotional photos suggest that fresh fruits and vegetables will be offered there – it would be interesting to see where this produce comes from (is it local?) and if it is affordable.

·      There is Farmer’s Market in Aarhus open from Tuesday – Friday during the summer.  Unfortunately, we were not in town on these days.  Additionally, it is unlikely that the market opens before June. 

·      We did not go into many grocery stores in Freiburg because of the tightness of our schedule.  However, we did notice that there was a natural food store near the region of Vauban.  There were many more sandwich shops, bakeries, and open-air markets in Freiburg than in either Copenhagen or Aarhus.  Farmer’s markets, mainly organic, are held weekly in each of the 17 districts of Freiburg, and the market around the central church is open 6 days a week.

·      There are a number of different certifications for organic practices in Germany (that are also applied throughout the European Union), including:  European Organic (the lowest standard), Bioland, and Demeter (the highest standard).  It is unclear who regulates these standards, but they are not all governmental. 

What is “local” in Europe?

  • The group had a number of discussions about what “local” means in the European context.  Because individual countries are much smaller than the U.S. (many are the size of U.S. states), shipping between countries does not necessarily imply a great distance or a great carbon footprint.   In order to determine just how far the food we saw in the grocery stores came from, we made the following calculations:    

    • Distance from Copenhagen to the Netherlands (where much of the produce in grocery stores is from) = 390 miles
    • Distance from Copenhagen to Spain = 1,100 miles

  • For the sake of comparison, we also calculated distances in the U.S.
    •  Distance from Montpelier, VT to Boston, MA = 154 miles
    • Distance from Poughkeepsie NY to NYC = 78 miles

  • We saw a fair amount of produce in the grocery stores of Copenhagen and Aarhus that was from the Netherlands and Spain; the mileages above indicate that these items are surely not considered to be local (or would not be considered local by our standards). Furthermore, the produce in Copenhagen often did not bear a label of origin.

  • However, there are two important local food items in Denmark. These are the rye bread and local seasonal Danish potatoes. It seems that Danes correlate these two food items with a sense of Nationalistic pride. This is similar to Norwegians’ adoration for their locally grown strawberries.

·      We saw evidence of what appear to be community gardens in an open-space south of Christiana in Copenhagen.  Each small plot of land (approximate dimension? 5x5 meter) had a small “house” on it.  Some gardens had fruit trees, some had the beginning of a vegetable garden, some had just lawn and flowers.  A woman on the train told us that these plots were for apartment-dwellers in Copenhagen as a mini-rural environment – they would come to these plots to get away from the city and enjoy “nature”.  As such, some plots had no produce whatsoever, others had gardens that would yield vegetables.  There was another community garden in the Vesterboro area in a public park next to a kindergarten.  The park seemed to serve a homeless or squatter community.  The garden plots were fairly small (perhaps 3m x 3m) and plantings included both flowers and vegetables. 

·      Gardening may be more important to the residents of Aarhus because 1) we saw more gardens on our bike ride,; 2) our guide spoke to the importance of having a garden.  This may be because there is more land available for gardening.

·      On our train ride to Freiburg, we saw numerous and extensive gardens next to the train tracks in the German towns.  These were primarily filled with edible plants.  Based on at least these limited observations from the train, it appears that vegetable gardening may be more prevalent in Germany than Denmark.
·      Between the White and Brown Meat-Packing Districts of Vesterboro in Copenhagen (i.e. the trendy part of town) there is an organic café called BioMio that opened in Feb. 2009.  This hip restaurant is 100% organic and promotes their emphasis on a local menu.  It is unclear the degree to which this is achieved, however, because the buyer for the restaurant is more concerned with organic than local.  Although they buy from Danish farmers when possible, they frequently need to import food because organic, Danish options are not available.  They do this through a distributer that specializes in organic food.  The literature available from the café (page 9) emphasizes sustainability and especially what people can do to reduce their climate impact.  The food was excellent and priced reasonably, at least by Danish standards. 

·      Due to the limited time, we did not explore many cafes or restaurants in Aarhus.  However, there seemed to be more emphasis on traditional Danish food on the menus we examined than there was in Copenhagen.  This may be due to the less cosmopolitan nature of the smaller city. 

·      There is a strong food culture in Freiburg.  From bakeries to sausage stands to sandwich shops, the food is both different from what is available in the United States and of higher quality (compared to equivalent venders).  Ignoring the exchange rate, the price is equivalent to cafes/restaurants in the U.S. and less expensive than either Copenhagen or Aarhus.  Eating out seems more affordable in Freiburg than in Denmark. 

Dining In
·      In Freiburg, we met a woman at the market (Maren) who invited us to dinner.  Fantastic in a lot of ways, this was especially appreciated because it allowed us to both observe how an individual eats in her home and the opportunity to talk about food production.  The dinner guests included an eclectic mix of people including our hostess, her friend from Northern Germany, her Russian friend, and a Japanese ex-pat who worked on a near-by organic farm, a young German man and his 5-year old son, and two of us (Jeane and Helen).  Nearly everything we ate was local – lamb from a nearby farm, a salad of fresh greens, tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, and herbs, beats, and potatoes.  It is our understanding that most of the ingredients were from the farm where the Japanese ex-pat worked or the local open-air market.  Very fun for us, we were involved in the preparation of the food by chopping vegetables as soon as we came in.  The food was all simply prepared and wonderful!  Our dinner conversation ranged from philosophy to politics, and included a discussion of food practices in the US and Germany.  It is interesting to note that the reason the Japanese woman was living in Germany (now for 7 years) was because she wanted to study organic farming, which wasn’t widely available in Japan.  Also, interestingly, she thinks the US is more advanced than Germany in some ways because of development of the CSA concept.  It was nice to be reminded that some of the alternative and environmental practices of the US are exported and make a positive contribution. 

Valuing agriculture
·      The planners in both Copenhagen and Aarhus referred to their farm belt as the Rotten Banana, while our German architect guide seemed to have a very positive appreciation of farmers.  Flying over the farmlands of Germany from Basel to Munchen, the little farmsteads looked very healthy.

·      While in Germany, we visited Mathislehof, a very typical Black Forest farmhouse that is just over 400 years old. The farm (comprised of mainly livestock) is managed by a few young “food activists”, people who studied agriculture while at the University of Freiberg and are committed to providing more knowledge and hand on experience of more sustainable farming practices.  The former University scholars and now farmers converted the farm from conventional to organic farming practices. They also created cooperation with another farm nearby that makes it possible for four adults to fully subsist on farming. This in contrast to many farms in the Black Forest that are abandoned because they are not profitable any more. Our tour guide, Claudia Bieling (a faculty in the Institute of Landscape Management at the University of Freiberg), explained that the impact of abandoned farms in the Black Forest is resulting in a loss in natural and cultural capital.

What we can bring back from these experiences:

            Food is a very complex topic that involves culture, aesthetics, biology (including the supporting inorganic systems), economics, and politics.  Based on our experiences, we see that Europe is struggling to balance competing forces of cost, taste, quality, and environmental impact in a similar way to the United States.  In both Denmark and Germany, we spoke with people who agreed that how food is produced is important because of sustainability.  However, there seems to be a greater sense of the value of local food in Germany compared to Denmark.  This conclusion is based on the prevalence of markets in Freiburg, as well as our dinner discussion with a local Freiburg resident.  However, the difference between our experience in the two cities could also be explained by: 1) seasonality (Denmark is much farther north and it may be too early in their season to have very much available), and 2) the scale of the cities (although Copenhagen is not that much larger than Freiburg, it is the capital city and contains a large percent of the Danish population).  Freiburg is a relatively small city by German (or US) standards. 
            It is hard to extrapolate specific lessons about food based on our experiences, but here are some thoughts that may be useful to others.  The group discussions were as important as our direct observations in forming some of our thoughts about this complex subject. 

Using this information in courses:
·         It is critical to understand where food comes from and how industrial food is unsustainable.  This has not only environmental and biological dimensions, but also spiritual. Students learn a lot from knowing where their food comes from. By following a fair trade label, they might find that the production practices may not be so “fair” after all or it may not be as easy to trace the origin of a product they consume. These exercises should also include questions of who gets the privilege of knowing and eating food, such as “local” foods.

·         Seasonality is an important topic to emphasize along with locality (this is perhaps obvious, and yet some students won’t think about it).  This issue was stressed by our Danish colleagues in their discussions about a perceived conflict between local food and “just food” (taking into consideration the social welfare of those involved in food production).

·         When considering local, it is also important to think about how US food consumption influences the economies of other cultures.  With this in mind, things like reforms made in the 2008 and 2012 Farm Bills become very important to understand and to teach. For example, US subsidy programs play a major role in food regulation. These subsidies often benefit the wealthiest farmers and do not support ecological farming practices (i.e. the overproduction of corn). At the same time, many developing devote some of the best land to export crops. However, as cotton farming in many West African countries such as Burkina Faso demonstrates, these farmers are unable to compete in US markets because of subsidies. Drawing upon the work of Julie Guthman and Susanne Freidberg, the local food movement may not serve as a sufficient response given these embedded global structural inequalities. “Locavores” often fail to consider how “going local” might affect places that depend on export markets. For example, the choice to stop drinking coffee will have a huge impact on a Tanzanian coffee farmer. During our time in Copenhagen, a few Danes responded that they don’t choose to eat local because they want to support farmers in developing countries.

Using this information for campus sustainability issues:
  • Slow food – create opportunities for people to eat together and share their ideas
Consider ways to involve students in the preparation of food that is shared with others.  Middlebury College has Dolci[3], a meal prepared by students four times each month with funds from Dining Services; they feed ~80 people at each meal.  The initiative and benefits of Dolci are that it gives students opportunities to cook for each other and students (and faculty, if they can get tickets!) dine in a more intimate and relaxed setting. 

  • Policies related to where our food comes from.  Encourage Dining Services to label ingredients in each dish, with point of origin for each ingredient.  This is a lot of work but once the initial data are collected, making these informational signs may not be that onerous.  Perhaps a student could get course credit for setting up the initial database.

  • “Grab and go” CAN be nutritious, you just have to be selective

Using this information for community sustainability issues:
-          Broaden your sphere of influence about healthy sustainable food by inviting a stranger (or a neighbor!) to dinner.  Jeanne and Helen learned a lot about food and cooking and local perspectives on food and agriculture during our dinner with Maren at her home in Freiburg.  What better way to teach and learn about food than over a meal shared with others?

-          Encourage and participate in “slow food”; make meals from scratch (and share them with friends).  Invite friends to help you prepare your “slow food”.

-          Encourage and participate in the planting and maintenance of vegetable gardens, be they school-yard gardens or community gardens.  The more people learn about where food comes from, how food grows, and how wonderful fresh food tastes, the more likely it is that they will eat a healthy diet.  We can promote this through community gardens and affordable CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture, in which members buy “shares” of the season’s harvest and receive, on a regular basis, fresh fruits and vegetables (and, in some cases, meat, cheese, and eggs) from local farms).

-          Support the farmers themselves by shopping regularly at farmer’s markets and joining a CSA – both of these markets directly benefit the people growing the food.  If possible, get students to the farmer’s market – exposure is everything.

  • Eating is complicated, and we need to do it often.  Creating structures that allow for quality AND convenience AND affordability is pretty hard.  German sandwich shops and bakeries seem to have done this (it is a little more expensive, but not much).  However, this is done in conjunction with an active lifestyle of walking and biking so that people burn the calories that they are consuming through the high quality food. 

  • Buying local means we aren’t supporting famers in other parts of the world.  This was particularly emphasized by our Danish contacts.  What does this imply? 

  • There is so much emphasis on cheap – what can be done to overcome this mentality without placing a greater burden on the already marginalized?

 *click here for the illustrated version of this page*

[1] For example, cultural or religious considerations.
[2] Marmite: Denmark says spread could be illegal.  http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-13536479
[3] http://www.middlebury.edu/middlebury_google_custom_search/go/dolci