The American food industry does a very good job of keeping consumers in the dark about where their food comes from – even students at the No. 1 public university in the U.S.
UCLA Dining Services is known for the quality of its food and its commitment to sustainable practices. The university conducts waste audits in the dining halls to heighten students’ awareness of their consumption habits.
Food waste is a top sustainability priority for UCLA Dining.
Unfortunately, it’s only a small part of the problem.
UCLA Dining consistently tops Niche’s “Best College Food in America” and was once again ranked first in 2020. And as a whole, the university lives up to the ranking.
But despite UCLA’s commitment to source at least 20% of its food sustainably in 2020, some controversial companies continue to supply the dining halls.
UCLA Dining does a good job of sourcing locally when possible and providing students with a variety of healthy options. But some of the companies that UCLA Dining sources its food from, such as Chiquita Bananas, fail to live up to this standard and undermine the university’s sustainability mission. UCLA needs to recommit itself to ethical food sourcing if it wants to fully invest in a sustainable future.
In 2018, the Colombia Prosecutor General’s Office authorized the prosecution of 13 former Chiquita executives for allegedly financing paramilitary groups to carry out several hundred murders and kidnappings between 1997 and 2004. According to a 2017 Pulitzer Center article, Chiquita, in 2007, admitted to making 100 payments totaling $1.7 million to the AUC,or the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia. AUC is a major drug-trafficking and paramilitary organization recognized by the U.S. as a Foreign Terrorist Organization.
The company has a long and bloody history of human rights violations and union suppression – and it is also notoriously unsustainable.
Chiquita has zero policies on regulating the use of hazardous chemicals on its plantations according to a 2020 Ethical Consumer analysis, meaning that agrochemicals leach into local water systems. These chemicals destroy aquatic life and cause rapid algae blooms that absorb oxygen needed by other species. Many of the chemicals used are known to be carcinogenic – causing severe health problems such as sterility, cornea damage and increased risk of cancer for plantation workers and locals.
But walk into any residential dining hall on the Hill and you’ll spot a banana with a little blue sticker, marking it as a Chiquita product.
UCLA student organizations recognize the importance of ethical and sustainable food sourcing, even if UCLA Dining has failed to uphold its commitments to the same standard. Students have taken the initiative to raise awareness among the student body through projects such as the Farmer’s Market at UCLA, an event that brings fresh, local produce directly to Bruin Plaza twice a week.
“The great thing about farmer’s markets is that you’re buying local produce, which means that it hasn’t traveled thousands of miles coming from other countries, and you’re supporting local farmers who are suffering from the consequences of big agriculture,” said Hailey Mylett, a fourth-year geography/environmental studies student and co-director of the Farmer’s Market at UCLA.
And despite their university’s lack of initiative, students can educate themselves on which companies they should be investing in and what particular product labels actually entail.
“I think it’s important for people to understand what the food labels actually mean because you see a lot of labels and not all of them mean anything at all. … Things like ‘humane’ or ‘natural,’ these words don’t mean anything really,” said Jesse Tandler, a world arts and cultures/dance lecturer who is teaching a course on food politics.
Americans are still paying more for organic food, but the price differential is gradually shrinking. In four years, the cost of organic products has decreased by 1.5%. But despite the cost barrier slowly deteriorating, UCLA Dining hasn’t made the switch.
“In many instances, sustainable products cost more money and we have to find savings in our budget to offset them,” UCLA Dining said in an emailed statement. “Reaching 100% sustainable and ethical food sourcing by current standards is currently not one of our goals due to cost and ability to procure at our volume.”
Chiquita Bananas is certainly a budget-friendly option – if UCLA Dining continues to disregard the human cost of producing them.
Mylett said she thinks the biggest obstacle that individuals, organizations and universities like UCLA face when it comes to ethical and sustainable food sourcing is price – but she also believes the benefits outweigh the costs.
“Big agriculture is able to put smaller farms out of business because they can get lower prices, but I think that you have to understand that when you’re using more sustainable practices, that can kind of pay for itself,” Mylett said. “There are a lot of advantages to becoming more sustainable and earth-friendly that can offset the costs of sourcing more local produce.”
Of course, the higher prices of sustainable and ethical food sourcing are undeniably a huge challenge for UCLA Dining, in addition to many institutional difficulties related to local and sustainable food purchasing.
According to an emailed statement, UCLA’s urban location limits product availability and UCLA Dining said it also faces challenges implementing a streamlined approach to meet the sheer demand of 31,000 meals plus per day. UCLA Dining’s quality standards also impose a burden on smaller farms and price constraints continue to be the greatest impediment.
There are many levels to sustainable sourcing – and changes like Impossible Meat are a starting point, not the finish line.
The university should strive to phase out companies like Chiquita Bananas, whose history of human rights violations, unfair labor policies and sustainability failures are not representative of UCLA Dining’s goals.
Students shouldn’t feel guilty about eating bananas at Bruin Plate.