CMU celebrates sustainable food

Writer Melinda Hemmelgern (right) spoke on Wednesday about sustainability and healthy choices in food consumption. (credit: Photo courtesy of Paula Martin) Writer Melinda Hemmelgern (right) spoke on Wednesday about sustainability and healthy choices in food consumption. (credit: Photo courtesy of Paula Martin)

Writer Melinda Hemmelgarn gave a talk at Carnegie Mellon on Wednesday as part of Campus Sustainability and Food Day. The talk focused on the choices that consumers make with regards to their food.

Carmegie Mellon’s Campus Sustainability and Food Day celebrated “sustainability and the movement towards ‘more healthy, affordable and sustainable food,’ ” according to a university press release.

Hemmelgarn’s talk was the main event of Food Day. According to Hemmelgarn, consumers should not only think of the final form of the food they eat, but also where it came from, how it was made, and at what cost it was produced.

Sarah Kuethe, sophomore political science and sociology double major at the University of Pittsburgh, said the talk related to students since they have unique food concerns.

“As students, we don’t have many choices with food,” Kuethe said.

Hemmelgarn addressed several aspects of food consumption, production, and marketing: water, chemicals, label lingo, autism, environment, policy, food safety, farmers, and healthcare. One of the main lessons of her talk was what makes food “good.”

Hemmelgarn said good food is tasty, environmentally safe, produced humanely, accessible to all, safe from chemicals, seasonal, and regional.

“Food has to be safe and it has to taste good. Who wants to eat if it doesn’t taste good?” Hemmelgarn said. “It has to be produced humanely, and that means from the animals all the way up to the people.”

She said the workers who plant and pick food need to be treated well. If they are treated poorly, then the food is “not good food.”

In her talk, Hemmelgarn also explained the difference between organic and natural food.

She warned the audience to “be careful of the lingo” on packages.

“Organic is extremely different from natural,” Hemmelgarn said. “Organic has a strong federal regulation in terms on what it can be and what it can’t be. Natural? Very weak. No legal definitions, really; the FDA has one food definition, the [U.S. Department of Agriculture] has another.”

During her talk, Hemmelgarn said that consumers should wait to buy organic foods until they’re in season locally.

“Good food is seasonal and regional when it can be,” Hemmelgarn said. “There’s something better about a strawberry that you waited for. We can always get strawberries in February. They’re everywhere. But is that sustainable? And I would argue that they’re not as delicious.”

Later, Hemmelgarn continued, “The gold standard is local, organic. The problem is that we import a lot. So [consider] an organic pepper that’s [not] sprayed, but it’s coming from the Dominican Republic. It’s good that there are no harmful chemicals being used in the Dominican Republic, but we have to consider the fuel that’s used to bring this pepper here. So maybe just wait another month or two, and then you’ll have peppers that are local.”

When asked about how that could potentially negatively affect the economics of the country exporting food for money, Hemmelgarn said, “I think it’s important for countries to be food secure and to be able to feed themselves.”

Jessica Owens, the supervisor of supplemental instruction in Excel programs at Carnegie Mellon, said that she thought the talk “aligned with a lot of initiatives” at the university.

Owens said she would take away Hemmelgarn’s “encouragement to do more critical thinking” about food and apply it to life.

“I think it’s important to be a part of the food system,” said London Depaule, a graduate student at Chatham University. Depaule worked for a nonprofit where he encountered people who didn’t have easy access to food.

“I don’t think you’ll know what it’s like unless you live in that situation,” Depaule said. Of the talk, he said that he thought it was “a call to action” for students.

“We have to rethink food access, and I’d like to ask the question: Why can’t people get to good food?” Hemmelgarn said. “I don’t care whether you’re in a prison, or a day care, a school, or where you are in the class system.... Everyone deserves good food.”

“I think it’s so important to eat organically and recognize that, while cheap is good, it’s bad in the long run,” Suvi Gluskin, a senior in the Bachelor of Humanities and Arts program said. “I hope CMU incorporates more organic sustainable practices.”