It was all about sustainability at the fourth annual Social Entrepreneurship Conference last Wednesday. The theme of the event was based on an exciting and potentially revolutionary way of thinking: “Can local, healthy food transform our community?”
The day began the way any food production conference should, with a delicious breakfast. The conference’s sponsors made their presence known by providing a variety of interesting healthy food products in addition to the breakfast buffet.
One popular food stand was set up by the Fresh Grocer, a local supermarket chain planned to be opened south of Main Campus in Progress Plaza as soon as January 2010.
Entrepreneurs and students crowded around a stunning invention: a machine that uses heat and compression to create healthy, low-calorie rice cakes. The stand’s operators cranked them out every few seconds throughout the entire event, eventually accumulating dozens of bags that were given out for free.
Other popular display tables included the freshly baked goodness of Baltimore-based Michele’s Granola and Zukay’s “probiotic, 100 percent natural and ridiculously fresh salsas and relishes.”
After perusing the buffet and the sponsors’ tables, the speeches began, starting with a very controversial keynote address.
“Land-based agriculture is either dead, like it is in the Middle East – dying, like it is here – or going to die because of climate change,” said keynote speaker Dr. Dickson Despommier, a professor of environmental health sciences and microbiology at Columbia University.
Taking a more positive tone, he tried to convey his vision of farming in the future.
“I think that if we were to invent vertical farming, it would offer us the opportunity to invent eco-urbanization,” he said.
But students seemed to prefer the panels consisting of leaders involved in local food production and sustainability who supplied attendees with their views of modern farming, over Despommier’s vertical farming idea.
“The first panel was good. It was really, really educational,” said Anastasios Pantelopulos, a senior environmental studies major. “It showed what the situation of farming is right now and sort of the absurdities behind that, but it was enlightening as well.”
“The speaker who talked about vertical farming had an interesting idea,” he said. “But it wasn’t very practical, due to the extremely high costs and amount of energy required.”
Marilyn Anthony, the Southeastern Regional director for the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture made her opinion clear.
“Once again,” she said, “no disrespect to the keynote speaker, but it’s news to me that farming is failing.”
Despite a possible lack of harmony among the speakers, students seemed to be very optimistic about the implementation of local healthy food within our communities.
“I think it’s really realistic,” said Angela Ficco, a freshman environmental studies and geography and urban studies major. “I think people aren’t educated enough about local and organic food. The conference is a great place to meet people and learn a lot.”
“The big thing that I learned today was that just a little bit of support from normal people that buy food can really boost the local economy,” said Luke Byrnes, a senior biology major.
In the end, it seems it’s up to young people to get involved.
“As a college student, you can’t really afford to buy a lot of stuff,” Byrnes said. “But just once a week, there’s a co-op in my neighborhood, and if I just get a head of lettuce and a few tomatoes and a root, then ‘ka-ching.’ That’s a big help.”
Mike Podlogar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.