Opinion | ETHS must convert to local, sustainable food

With the rise of social media in recent years, the commodification and polarization of information has become a staple of American culture. Debates that were once held in private campuses are now being broadcast nationally, and, as a result, they are becoming increasingly controversial. The case against factory farming is no exception. A 2017 poll from the Sentience Institute estimates that 49 percent of Americans agreed with the statement, “I support a ban on the factory farming of animals,” which nearly perfectly divides the nation on the issue. Many of these citizens, those who want to see an end to factory farming, are ETHS parents and guardians, faculty or even students like myself. That last fact is why, when I continue this article, (which argues for ETHS’ conversion to local and sustainable food sources), I can make no claim of objectivity.

With that out of the way, let’s not beat around the bush: the vast majority of ETHS’ food comes from factory farms, although I did not know that when I first set out to write this piece, and it did not prove an easy fact to find. ETHS’s food sources were no secret, sure, but while they boast about the Edible Acre and how it’s an example of, “Local and Sustainable Programming,” nowhere on the ETHS website was a section about the factory farms from which most of their food comes. Of course, I’m sure this was not directly intentional, but it speaks to the unimportance with which food sources are treated in the Evanston community, and society at large, even while 49 percent of Americans say they support a ban on factory farming. I mean, it’s almost surreal to me, the fact that ETHS thought nobody would even look for their food sources. 

So to find answers, I’d decided to reach out to Kim Minestra, the Director of Nutrition Services at ETHS, and set up an interview centered around one singular question, “Do you know the name or names of the school’s food suppliers?” to which she answered swiftly—“Gordon Food Service.” It was a name that I’d seen many times before, both from various food packages and spelled out in big red letters over the entrance to their very own Evanston-based marketplace. However, despite the existence of their Evanston location, they are quite literally the opposite of a local food source. With more than 175 stores nationwide, they have become the single most successful private food service distributor in the country, supplying restaurants like Culvers and P.F Chang’s, but also, as it would have it, schools. While they are not a factory farm themselves, the role of GFS, which requires them to act as a proxy between buyers and sellers (of food), heavily incentivizes them to choose the sellers with the lowest prices, and as it stands, those are all factory farms. So essentially, as long as ETHS continues to buy from GFS, their food is all going to be coming out of factory farms. 

This is a problem because, in their current state, factory farms are morally, socially, and environmentally unsustainable. Morally because of the reprehensible treatment for their animals, socially because of the unjust food systems they create and environmentally because of the immense carbon footprint they produce. Yet, I still felt that more than these general arguments were needed to justify the complete annexation of GFS from the ETHS food system, so I dug a little deeper into GFS’ factory farms and what I found was rather striking. The sole poultry provider for GFS and arguably their closest partner is a factory farm called Wayne Farms, which has recently come under heavy fire by animal advocacy groups after the public release of hidden camera footage taken at inside their farms, which allegedly shows their birds being “scalded alive in hot water tanks,” as well other gruesome acts like having their legs and wings needlessly broken and their necks sliced open while still conscious. According to Nick Cooney, the Director of Education at the non-profit Mercy for Animals, “Gordon Food Service has the power and responsibility to end the needless suffering of millions of animals in its supply chain.” Unfortunately, in light of these facts GFS ultimately decided to continue business as usual. To this day, no commitments were made, nor warnings issued to the factory farms with which they conduct their cold-hearted business, and it is likely that all of the chicken sandwiches in the ETHS cafeteria right now came directly from Wayne’s cruel slaughterhouses.

All of this information is not meant as an attack against the ETHS administration and should not be taken as such. In fact, I have not yet even addressed the main reason as to how this current situation came about, which was disclosed to me in the earlier interview that I conducted with Ms. Minestra. The truth is, ETHS belongs to a purchasing cooperative composed of around sixty other school districts, each brought together by one shared interest—cheap food. A purchasing co-op, for those who have never heard of the term, (I know I hadn’t), is an arrangement made by multiple entities seeking the same product that drives costs down by buying together in bulk. The problem is, while working within the constraints of this particular co-op, the Nutrition Services Department can only source from two (somewhat) local businesses, Alpha Baking and Bob’s Dairy, which together comprise a considerably small portion of the total amount of food at ETHS. It seemed to me that in this current situation, ETHS’ involvement with GFS as opposed to with local food sources was but another instance of sustainability being tossed by the wayside in the name of a supposed financial gain. Ms. Minestra even seemed to agree with me on that.

“I wish we could consider more of that [sustainability] when we are figuring out what to buy,” commented Minestra.

All of this being said, I knew the path to completely local, sustainable food sources would be a difficult sell, and I expected that some individuals in the ETHS administration would be very resistant to a drastic change like what I was advocating for. This was why I decided to also reach out to Donale Richards, the Outreach Specialist at Michael Fields Agricultural Institute, whom I hoped would provide me with viable, tangible reasons for the swap to a completely local and sustainable food system. 

Michael Fields is a Wisconsin-based non-profit organization whose goal is to create “more equitable and healthy food systems,” by providing farmers with adequate resources, influencing policy decisions, and educating people about local, sustainable food systems. Richards himself started there as an assistant policy director before eventually becoming their outreach specialist, and although there were many other experts within the organization, he seemed like the best candidate because of the abundance of work he’d done on incentivising governments to adapt new policies. Turns out, he was even more knowledgeable on the subject than I’d expected, and he was even able to give me a solution to the problem I was most worried about: the economic incentives of ETHS.

“For economic reasons, switching to local food systems just makes sense,” Richards explained to me, “transportation and food waste have real costs associated with them, and unfortunately, I don’t think schools necessarily do the analysis to factor in those costs when they’re trying to make purchasing decisions.”

But, there was also one unexpected setback that he warned me about, and that was the divisive political machinations surrounding food sourcing. Upon further research, I found that the Illinois government is still upholding terrible, outdated policies that restrict school food sourcing more than I could have ever imagined. According to WBEZ, “under Illinois law, school districts reimbursed for serving free and reduced lunches to low-income children are required to accept the lowest bid for their food contracts,” meaning that ETHS could have been outright forced to buy from places like GFS. Luckily, the law might be overturned soon, as Illinois Representative Jehan Gordon-Booth recently introduced a promising new bill called the Better School Lunches Act which seeks to exempt schools from the previous policy. The bill has already been unanimously approved by the Illinois House’s Elementary and Secondary Education committee, and is currently awaiting a date to be called before a vote in front of the full House.

“There’s obviously a lot of political things that I think will take several years just to get started. Contact your state representatives, and have that conversation with them of, like, we want to see more of this happen. You might not have all the details, but simply calling your state representative and expressing that does make a political shift,” Richards urges.

If I’ve learned anything during the process of conducting interviews for, researching about, and finally writing this article, it’s that this whole situation is immensely complicated. There are so many factors that play into every decision, and so many actors with so many diverse interests, that it’s probably impossible to find one simple, please-all solution. Perhaps the best thing that I or anyone can do as of now, while ETHS’ hands are tied by Illinois law, is just bring awareness to this topic and highlight the many reasons as to its importance. This sentiment is paralleled by Richards in the way that he chose to end his interview with me, in which he attempts to spur some measure of decisive, verbal student action.

“If I didn’t stress it enough, I just want to really have you or some of your peers understand that you have a lot more power than you know. So if you really want to see change in your school, I think you should just start to feel confident and empowered that you have a voice,” Richards concludes.