As University of Wisconsin-Madison students check over their syllabi for this fall’s upcoming classes, many of them will notice a common book in the curriculum. This year, the university has introduced the “Go Big Read” program
, which encourages universal discussion of a certain book. The inaugural book is “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto” by Michael Pollan, which encourages people to eat simple, healthy food, and to avoid highly processed food products and nutritional fads.
In addition to the reading program, the university has organized several events to go along with the program. For example, book discussions, lectures and presentations on eating well have all been scheduled for September, culminating in a Sept. 24 lecture by Pollan at the Kohl Center.
But Pollan’s mantra of “eat food, not too much, mostly plants” from the book is at odds with the traditional college diet. “Eat whatever’s cheap, as much as possible, mostly grease,” is more like it. The inception of the program raises the question of how much Wisconsin students care about what they’re eating.
“As a rule, the number of students that raise questions and concerns has traditionally been very small,” said Brian Burke of the UW Dining Administration. He added that the book may lead to more questions, but said that only a small number of students ask about the source of their food or request local or organic options.
Despite a low number of requests for organic options, Burke said, the residential dining halls offer more organic food than they had in the past. He said that there used to be one to two organic dinners per year, but now there are organic options available all the time, such as fruit and some carryout items. Local foods, such as Wisconsin potatoes, milk and cheeses, are also offered, he said.
”Buying locally is just different in that it may take more leg work to make the arrangements, but we have made great strides,” Burke said. He stressed that quality is more important than price, but also said that they must consider the amount of food that they can serve, since UW dining halls cater to students in the university’s 18 residence halls.
“We try to never forget that we are feeding all of our residents, not just subsets looking for particulars,” he said. “We feel the amount of choice we offer accommodates most of what our residents are looking for.” He added that the dining halls do not endorse a particular diet, but try to offer a large range of options so everyone finds what they need.
So if students have traditionally been uninterested in the content of their food, will the “Go Big Read” program change any of that?
On the night of Pollan’s talk at the Kohl Center, UW dining will be serving a local/sustainable dinner at Pop’s Club, one of the university dining halls, Burke said. While Pop’s is a student dining hall, it is also open to the public. In addition to the meal, he said, there will also be educational table tents addressing issues in the book set up for diners.
It’s hard to make the transition from mac and cheese to heirloom tomatoes. But maybe this will be one semester lesson that students will digest.