In the next few years, Mount Allison’s new Centre for Environmental Innovation will welcome a number of environmental scientists to Sackville’s research community. Precedent suggests that the University will host an opening gala to celebrate the Centre and our leadership in environmental innovation. It is equally likely that Aramark, the corporation responsible for supplying all food on campus, will cater the event. Regardless of the Centre’s purported benefits, the fact that the University holds ties to companies like Aramark means that, from its very inauguration, the Centre will house a contradiction.
The meaningful contributions the Centre will make to the development of our regional economy and our status as an innovative hub are complicated by our partnership with this multinational corporation. Aramark earns about $15 billion per year from food-service operations in schools, hospitals and prisons, making large-scale food supply artificially cheap and efficient.
If the Centre is to shed any light on our condition within a changing environment, we must consider the total network of practices that constitute our daily lives – including how we obtain our food here at Mt. A. The lack of current discourse on such issues makes me doubtful that even a Centre for Environmental Innovation will motivate this necessary task of self-reflection.
My skepticism owes to the fact that the University is unable to correct even the hypocrisies that do receive public criticism. It would be a great surprise if Mt. A, for example, officially acknowledged the duplicitousness of funding a Centre for Environmental Innovation while investing in the fossil fuels industry. Even then, the ethical carelessness of the University as an institutional investor receives much greater public, administrative and media attention than the moral responsibilities of the university as a dining-service provider. In most cases, the only official mention of our dining services comes in the form of quick praise before banquets. Otherwise, as will be the case at the Centre’s opening gala, our food providers remain ghostlike – the unnoticed bearers of cantaloupe slices and oatmeal cookies.
While our dining services make commitments to sourcing local food and minimizing their environmental impacts, our dependence on Aramark and other massive food providers like PepsiCo, Sysco and Nestle conceals the grim truth that we are unable to feed ourselves. From a fiscal perspective, the costs of organizing our community to grow, procure, cook and serve our food are too great to be undertaken by either our school or our region as a whole. To feed ourselves, we rely on large-scale agricultural operations, globalized networks of supply and efficient corporate structures. In turn, the food industry’s tremendous ecological damages have become essential to the way we eat.
Innovating the food system does not require technological, scientific, or policy-based improvements to existing industrial networks. Rather, innovation requires that food production become a local and community-focused affair. It is impossible to counter ecological damage by working with the very corporations that obscure the value of local food. Any institutional effort that does not work toward making our food system a local, sustainable
and accessible affair cannot be praised as environmentally innovative.