Road Trip: Hope in an American Food Desert

Before I left for this trip I did a little research. I looked up the official tourism web site for the town I’d be staying in. Under “many fine dining opportunities” the site listed Applebee’s and Arby’s. Ouch.

I packed lots of tasty, healthy, homemade snacks for the eight-hour bus ride and resigned myself to mediocre, environmentally disreputable road food for the rest of the trip.

I’m in Erie, PA for the Northeast American College Dance Festival. I’m here because A) I’m the official faculty chaperon for fourteen students from Adelphi University and B) because the university chose to present a piece I choreographed at this year’s festival. If you’re wondering what a locavore, writer, gardening and foraging teacher is doing choreographing for a dance festival, check out my other life.

disposable

Anyway, my first meals of the trip reminded me that it wasn’t just the food I had to worry about, but the trash. The only milk or cream for coffee option at the hotel restaurant came in those miniature plastic cups I’d hoped had become obsolete. I was pleasantly surprised to see what appeared to be simple vegetables and legumes at the all-you-can-eat buffet, but everything tasted like the same jar of Liquid Smoke had been shaken over it, and everything came in disposable containers.

And then there was the popcorn the nice guy at the front desk microwaved for me, after taking it out of its cellophane wrapper. I ate it while watching a movie, and noticed a not-quite-right aftertaste. A look at the bag revealed that it boasted “94% fat-free butter.” Fat-free butter? What does that mean? No, never mind. I don’t want to know.

popcorn

On the way to the college where the festival is being held, I saw a sign that read:

“Big Woodie’s Fireworks: Peppergas, Stunguns, & Sugar-Free Fudge”

(I am not making that up. I wish I had. It would be truly funny writing, but sadly the authors’ comic genius appears to have been only semi-intentional.)

When we got to the campus, one of the first things I saw was a bunch of french fries lying on the ground.

fries-in-the-snow

Clearly my food horizon was bleak for the next few days, and I should just focus on the students and their dancing and forget about anything else. They are having a good time on this trip, and I don’t want to spoil it for them (by the way, they brought LOTS of their own food with them. I think the point was more to save money than anything else, but whatever the reason, in this case it seems like a good impulse).

elevator

Today I went into the Mercyhurst cafeteria for lunch. The first thing that greeted me was a poster celebrating the fact that the college gets as much of its food as possible from within 125 miles, serves milk from local cows, and has renounced styrofoam and reintroduced dish washing as a job.

mercyhurst-local-sign

Wow.

Alas, by comparison, the school I am here to represent has a long way to go when it comes to the food choices it offers the students, not to mention the environmental impact of its disposable serving containers. Partly because of that, many of my students still cheerfully do things like toss their paper coffee cups into the trash without a second thought (yeah, even though they have me as a teacher. I’m working on it).

But Mercyhurst surprised me with its example of a school that has already taken the initiative and made significant changes that support local farms, reduce environmental impact, and through educating by example teach students to value things such as “local” and reject “disposable.” There is hope.

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Botany, Ballet, & Dinner from Scratch: A Memoir with Recipes by Leda Meredith

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One response to “Road Trip: Hope in an American Food Desert”

  1. acmeplant says:

    What a wonderful surprise and an excellent alternative to Applebee’s! There is hope indeed.

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