Food origins prove mysterious to the everyday consumer


Emily Blobaum/Iowa State Daily

A student assembles buffalo chicken wraps at the Knapp-Storms Commissary Kitchen Oct. 15. The buffalo chicken wraps, which are the most popular, take around an hour to assemble. 

Danielle Gehr

With the swipe of a red, thin piece of plastic, the everyday Iowa State student enters a world of more food than one could possibly consume themselves and enough variety to overwhelm any poor undergrad.

To the right, the smells of barbeque sauce and grilled meats give an illusion that the student is at a southern cookout. To the left, Asian cuisine is featured, offering something a little more exotic than the average burger. Across the expansive space, they find a salad bar with all the vegetables they could ever want and the ability to compliment them with dressings and croutons.

The variety is there, but most fail to ask what journey this food had to take to make it to those metal trays and eventually onto their brightly colored plate.

“Typically, a U.S. citizen’s understanding of international connections is pretty limited,” said Robert Mazur, Iowa State professor of sociology. “Many people don’t even know where food that is grown in the U.S. where it comes from and how it gets to the supermarket or anything about the conditions.”

Student workers shuffle back and forth behind the counters, working to pay off their student debt as they prepare food with ingredients whose origins are a mystery to them.

The corn sitting in front of a student is likely Iowa grown. It would be illogical for ISU dining to get a lot of its produce non-locally in a state with the slogan “Fields of Opportunities.”

When it comes to a slice of chocolate cake, despite being made in house, the cocoa beans that hold a major role in creating the chocolate are likely linked to forced labor which is often also child labor. A coffee from Bookends typically has similar connections.

‘Weapons of mass distraction’

The neighboring Western African countries Mali, Burkina Faso and Togo lost tens of thousands of children to forced labor in nearby Ghana and Cote D’Ivoire.

These five to 17 year olds, deemed to be worth a price of $40, often work 12 hour days for $200 a year.

Ann Reed, adjunct assistant professor of world languages and cultures at Iowa State, spews out these facts of the lesser known “modern slavery” to her international studies class of mostly American Midwesterners with a few international students sprinkled in.

Most of these students eat chocolate bars linked to the hands of children who have no choice but to continue to work through harsh conditions for little pay. Most had no inclination that their food was in any way linked to inhumanity.

Elianna Comstock sat in the third row of Reed’s class towards the center during this lecture. As a sophomore in finance, international studies 235 is simply an elective, a class to complete her international perspectives requirement.

Comstock is not in the minority when she says she does not think about the origins of her food. She didn’t think that this was strange until sitting in Reed’s class at Gilman Hall mid-March where she heard of the controversies that certain foods carry with them.

“All I really think about is gluten stuff and dairy and what’s in it and stuff like that. I don’t think where it comes from,” Comstock said. “I think it’s kind of weird that we don’t really know where [our food is] from. I feel like we should.”

Comstock imagines that it is the simple and easy nature of obtaining food in the U.S. that causes Americans to fail to ask the question, “Where is all this food coming from?”

The everyday U.S. citizen walks to the grocery store, picks out what they want, pays for their food and leaves. It has become routine causing the food’s beginnings to never cross the customer’s  mind.

More and more people are making the decision to switch to organic, fair-trade products, Mazur said, though this number remains a minority.

He continued that if there was a large enough push for more fair-trade products and more transparency when it comes to food origins, the people would be given their demands. There just aren’t enough people who care or want to pay more for products and overall consume less.

“We could get informed about the conditions under which we consume are produced, but the motive isn’t there. It certainly is possible to develop the systems of information with that, but I think people prefer to be subject to weapons of mass distraction,” Mazur said.

ISU Dining comes close to avoiding the chocolate controversy. Much of their chocolate is supplied by the fair-trade certified Ghirardelli brand. The Hershey bars and Nestle products sold at Iowa State convenience stores, though, do not hold themselves to the same standards.

Karen Rodekamp, the business and support manager at Iowa State, explained why they can’t eliminate these items from their selection.

Stating that it would take “an entire industry movement” when it comes to a brand as popular as Hershey, she compared the situation to a small coalition of students that are advocating for no plastic bottles on campus.

“There is a larger number of students that buy the bottled water on campus. Now, if that group [of students against plastic water bottles] grew and they stopped buying the bottled water, we wouldn’t sell the bottled water,” Rodekamp said.

In order for ISU Dining to keep from drowning, it must be run like a business to some extent, Rodekamp explained, putting it on the students to make these sorts of changes happen.

‘Slowly, but surely’

Lia Gomez is in many ways the opposite of her fellow sophomore at Iowa State, Comstock. Coming into college, Gomez was already aware of food origins, having taken an environmental science course that in many ways affected her life up to this point.

Currently an environmental science major, Gomez involves herself with activities on campus that relate to sustainability.

One of which is picking up leftovers from cafés around campus that are then donated to local food pantries. Another is working as director of sustainability on the Student Government executive cabinet.

In her hometown of San Antonio, Texas, Gomez saw the small movement that Mazur spoke of. She shopped at farmer’s markets that began popping up around Texas.

“If you’re shopping at your local farmer’s market where you get to know your farmer first hand and you get to talk to them about their practices, I feel like it’s definitely a better approach to where you get your food from,” Gomez said.

Gomez said that she thinks “slowly, but surely” the minority Mazur spoke of is growing as she sees more people gravitating toward fair-trade products and farmer’s markets.

The Friday before Spring Break, Gomez recalls their largest pick-up of leftovers from Gerdin’s Business Café yet. She estimated about two and half storage bins were filled with food that day from pastries to fresh fruit.

“It never ceases to amaze me how much food could have been going in the trash,” Gomez said.

Mazur explained that these issues of overconsumption and food wastage could be resolved if more people paid attention to the origins of their food. If people spent more money on fair-trade products, they would likely have to decrease the amount of purchaces.

“We are very much separated from it, but in some ways we want it and the same would be true for our clothing. We say that we want fair-trade and all the criteria associated with the production and marketing of that. I think if we did, we’d consume less because we would be paying a better price,” Mazur said.

Soy replaces the cow

When it comes to ISU Dining, Mohamed Ali, director of the university’s food service, made finding local vendors a top priority.

For Ali, the priority of keeping vendors local isn’t a humanitarian agenda nor an environmental one. The health of the students and quality of food is what drives him, though solving those issues can lead to solving the others.

“The food that’s prepared — that has grown here or harvested here — is fresh food and it’s good for our customers [and] also the money stays within those families of where our customers come from too,” Ali said.

Ali said those other issues hold importance, but that “what the customer can see and touch” is most important.

One initiative to be implemented next semester involves three men from Iowa City who grow their own soybeans which they then use to make their own tofu.

These people, only hours away from campus, will supply tofu to Iowa State students next semester.

“I am not a tofu person, but this stuff is good,” Ali says each time he relates the story of his trip to Iowa City where he watched soybeans become this light, spongy meat alternative before his eyes.

The main suppliers of tofu only produce in either California or overseas. These Iowans set out to bring a local option to the table.

He pointed to pictures from his excursion while explaining how the soybeans are soaked for 24 hours eventually releasing a white liquid through a funnel.

“That’s milk! That’s like a cow,” Ali said.

Going into more detail about future plans, Ali mentioned working with the horticulture department to become even more localized. He talked about expanding the bakery and producing even more of their own food from scratch.

This year, ISU Dining introduced homemade cookies. One of his goals is to expand this list. Summarizing all of these goals, Ali said, “We’re going back to the basics.”