The lawn in front of Hart House was the launch pad this week for the University of Toronto's new program to introduce local and sustainably produced food to its 70,000 students.
This commitment to Ontario farmers "is an excellent example of how a university can get involved as a good neighbour," U of T provost and vice-president Vivek Goel told the crowd.
While path-breaking in Ontario, the U of T deal is not the first of its kind. About 200 campuses across North America, including such Ivy League names as Yale and Vassar, already have some kind of farm-to-college program.
It's the sheer scale of the U of T project that impresses. It brings together eaters at one of the biggest universities on the continent with farmers in North America's largest protected peri-urban greenbelt of prime farmland. And it lets an emerging economic superpower show its stuff.
Not only are U of T's farmers local, but they also follow sustainable practices. Get used to those two formerly distinct words - "local" and "sustainable" - rolling off your tongue together. They'll soon have the same mouth feel as "macaroni and cheese," "research and development," "theory and practice," "health and well-being," "peanut butter and jam."
"Local and sustainable" is the new kid on the food block, edging up against the supermarket and junk food juggernaut of "distant and unsustainable." It also takes on growing market segments that might be described as "distant and organic" (organic strawberries from across the continent, for instance) and "local but not particularly sustainable" (local eggs from factory barns, for example).
Local Flavour Plus, which helped set the rules for the deal between U of T and its food service companies, gives its okay to farmers who've met the most comprehensive standards in the world for sustainability.
LFP-certified farmers are local producers who commit to using minimal pesticides and no genetically engineered materials, conserving energy and biodiversity, and implementing measures to safeguard animals' and farm workers' welfare .
Such standards go beyond organic, which regulates a strict ban on certain farm inputs (synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and so on) but doesn't address factors as such as the distance food travels, packaging or labour standards.
The U of T deal is the first world-class trial of this comprehensive sustainability developed in part by Lori Stahlbrand, the president of Local Flavour Plus and (for purposes of full disclosure) my wife. It might also represent the start of a new kind of heft for the ivory tower.
Post-secondary institutions have unmatched purchasing power. If U.S. universities were a country, they would be the 21st-biggest economy in the world, while in Canada, university R&D contributes more to GNP than the pulp and paper or auto industries.
How many Torontonians realize their city is a centre of higher education, with 200,000 post-secondary students, about 20 per cent of the population? There's barely a student ghetto, let alone other indicators of the demographic, social, economic and environmental potential.
But the size and latent clout of this sector means universities and colleges could set the standard for wages, energy efficiency, life-cycle resource (aka waste) management and alternative transportation for miles around.
Such opportunities inspire a bracing new book, Planet U: Sustaining The World, Reinventing The University, by Michael M'Gonigle and Justine Starke. Based on their experience at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, the two offer scenarios that far surpass anything entertained by student radicals of the 1960s (mea culpa) in terms of a "red university."
Their "green university" seeks to transform both the educational process and what they call the "shadow curriculum" of acceptable operational practices, urging the fostering of new values and businesses. "The challenge of global sustainability is unlike any social struggle of the past," they write.
I never expected a university would use its purchasing power and prestige to put local and sustainable on the map, which only shows to go you how easy it is to slip into bad thinking habits.
Many of us are used to assuming the world is controlled by "them," and we too often miss the opportunities and responsibilities of exercising power in a fluid and multi-polar world. If we don't use it, we lose it.
The ivory tower wields a lot of power, much of it subject to the direct pressure of students, staff and alumni as well as the indirect pressures of government financiers and public opinion. Universities are the engine of a knowledge- and innovation-centred economy, and there's a reason major corporations strive to sponsor, influence and frame what goes on there. Universities belong in the ranks of the heavy lifters. Bon appetit.