Mike Juchniewicz, a third year Criminal Justice student from Syracuse, N.Y., is like many of the dedicated employees of RIT’s Dining Services. Working at the RITz Sports Zone and the CTRL ALT DELi, he serves the needs of hundreds of students over the course of a week. In this case, our lives intersected over a double cheeseburger and fries served on a paper plate. He made the best burger I’d had all week (compared to the monstrous creations featured in “Punching Hunger in the Mouth”, page 16). While Juchniewicz and his cohorts at the RITz put much love into their daily creations, it remains to be said whether their knowledge of their own job extended outside of the kitchen. Did those responsible for the preparation of food for thousands of students know where it came from?
Juchniewicz’s answer was a “No,” something I had partially expected from the average college student. “I don’t think many people care,” he said. Juchniewicz remarked that his own personal diet choices, which did not include cheeseburgers, were dictated primarily by taste and money. For Juchniewicz and many college students, knowledge of what goes in and out of our bodies is secondary to the immediate experience of enjoying our three to seven square meals a day. But knowing the biography of your burger may be essential for your, and humanity’s, survival.
Where Does it Come From?
This question — what is really in that $7.65 double cheeseburger and fries — was kindly answered by Gary Gasper, associate director of Dining Hall Operations. RIT purchases its ground beef from Palmer Food Services, located on 900 Jefferson Road. Research traces the original location of New York beef to Trowbridge Angus Farms in Ghent, N.Y., some 256 driving miles away. Producing only Certified Angus Beef, Trowbridge Angus Farms has developed a local reputation for quality.
RIT’s commitment to a local distributor, and a specific supplier, is an exception to the majority in the world of food. The largest purchasers of beef — fast food restaurants — use factory-style methods to raise and slaughter cattle. This efficiency is made possible through a variety of factors worthy of books in their own right, inclusive of government subsidies, a glut of corn for livestock feed, and the use of fossil fuels to move the entire process quickly from feeding trough to the cafeteria tray.
The Meat Machine
Like Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle”, modern authors and filmmakers have done much to combat public ignorance and apathy. Household knowledge has changed due to a recent flurry of popular movie and book titles like “King Corn” and “Fast Food Nation.” These go to great lengths to explain a machine that has evolved out of the popularization of the motor vehicle and the Agricultural Revolution in the 1950s and ‘60s. Despite clear warning signs, change to the process has been limited. Continuing problems: cases of contagious diseases spread through livestock, greenhouse gases emitted by agriculture and the lengthy transportation thereof, and the exhaustion of land and water supplies. All these problems show that little is being done to change the way we eat.
Taste and price, the two factors that Juchniewicz said influences his diet most, lead companies to maximize both at the expense of qualities that may not be on the average consumer’s mind. Many of the things you “should” care about are far from my mind as I bite into each layer of simmering ground beef. For those who don’t have the luxury of college loans, the ability to decide what they want to eat is limited. Choosing a system that may adversely affect their health and their environment is a decision made everyday.
The Worldwide Food Balance
Public ignorance affects more than a lunchtime decision; it affects the whole world. Because the U.S. has become so efficient at producing food, other economies have adjusted to depend on our surpluses. These surpluses, however, aren’t predicted to last long into this next century.
Last year, when corn supplies in the United States dwindled due to increased production of ethanol fuel in 2008, countries dependent upon our exchange of corn suffered. Fourteen rice-exporting countries limited or banned exports, to feed their own people, as did 15 wheat-exporting countries. Nations were forced to hoard to ensure their own food security. Choosing combustible fuels over food inflated prices of staple crops like corn and soybeans, a trend that has many analysts warning of the possibility of a food shortage in the coming decades.
The 256 miles the RITz burger traveled to reach me is representative of an unnoticed truth: despite measures to become selective in choice of beef, the Institute, like much of the world, is largely dependent on fossil fuels to keep people fed. In the year 2030, the United States population is expected to peak at 293 million, and the world to grow to 8.2 billion. A higher standard of living and a dwindling supply of oil will undoubtedly put more pressure on fuel supplies. Our current system of expending over 400 gallons of oil to feed each American will not be possible forever.
Knowledge is Power
Educated consumer demand has a history of encouraging companies to change their policies and products. Public outrage over the sanitary conditions of meat packaging forced change at the turn of the century, and has severely restricted the tobacco industry. In May of 2006, Wal-Mart began stocking it’s shelves with organic products and produce, a sign that it was reacting to a public who had become more informed about the importance of food raised without pesticides or hormones. Tony Airoso, Chief Dairy Purchaser for Wal-Mart, was quoted as saying, “If it’s clear the customer wants it, it’s pretty easy to get behind it.”
A solution to America’s current food confusion is needed if the world wants to continue to eat. Technological innovation made America a world leader as a hyper-efficient food machine. But this efficiency has arguably hurt us, in terms of our personal health and environmental security. If enough people demand a shift in how our food is grown, raised and delivered, then the industry will react. But this change can only happen with knowledge of what needs to be done; a kind of knowledge we could all use a little more of on our plates.