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Missive From Melina

October 29, 2008

By Melina Shannon-Dipietro (obviously)

Lately I have found inspiration in the speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr, which document his tireless crusade for civil rights.  Towards the end of his life, he worked to combat poverty.  He wanted a nation where every family could eat three meals a day and where no parent would skip a meal to feed her child.
For King, food is a universal right, and it is universally understood.  His speeches are peppered with metaphors that call on the centrality of food in our lives.  When he sees evil, he calls it stale bread and spoiled meat.  He calls on the Biblical promise that every man will sit under his own vine and fig tree, and he calls for us all to sit at a table of brotherhood.
The work we do in cafeterias and dining halls is the legacy of King’s work.  Food is not just a great metaphor.  We need a table for everyone to gather around, and we need to serve meals that are good, clean, and fair there.
Yale serves 1.8 million meals every single year.  All told, its grocery bill is over $8 million dollars, and we are working to turn this grocery bill into a force for good, by purchasing local, seasonal, and sustainable food. In the 2006 – 2007 academic year, $1.6 million dollars of Yale’s grocery bill was spent on food that meets this mission.
We are working to turn Yale’s grocery bill into a force for justice and change in our local farming community, and we’re also working to connect Yale’s students and staff to the food they eat.  These students and dining hall staff come from backgrounds as different as you can imagine in terms of class, education, and race.  Food connects them because it is universal.  Everyone must eat every day, and those moments offer a chance to connect: I’ve watched jaded cafeteria ladies and wide-eyed freshmen share delight at the pleasure of tasting a sungold tomato.
Our work touches Yale’s 5,000 undergraduate students, but it also reachs the more than 400 people who work for Yale Dining: if you look at the statistics, their families are at the greatest risk for obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.  More than 60% of Americans are obese, and according to the CDC, 1 in 3 minority children born in 2000 will have Type II diabetes.  Type II diabetes is caused by diet, and it is preventable.
We have a public health crisis in this nation, and much of it is related to food.  The work that we do can help to solve this crisis, in ways large and small.  One summer I worked alongside a cook who was morbidly obese.  After a week of training on sustainable food, he returned to work, saying that he and his son that very night, had decided to boycott McDonald’s and never again eat fast food.
The work we do in colleges, schools, and institutions is crucial because it, like food, is universal.  In these settings, we can set the table with food that is good, clean, and fair, and teach values as we share meals.
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