By Jazzy Kerber '20
The federal government may seem distant and unreachable, but you do still have a voice in policy. Whether you want to see changes in your hometown or disagree with an executive order, contact your representatives. Montesquieu once called public apathy the greatest danger in a democracy, and it’s important to remember that you have great power as a constituent to make your voice heard. Politicians need your votes, so they have an incentive to hear you out. Read on for simple political action ideas:
If you want a very direct impact or a personal response to your request, contact your city government. Think about small actions that connect to a larger cause you care about. For example, as part of a class project, I recently wrote to the mayor of my hometown explaining why and how I believe we should expand our composting program. I visited my city’s website to understand the current program, and then I talked to people back home to find out what resources they knew about and how much they composted. Afterward, I compared the system in my Chicago suburb to what I’ve observed in California and thought about possible changes. Here is a copy of the letter I wrote to my mayor:
You probably understand your own city’s policies and their impacts well, so you can be specific about what you want to change. Your local government is also more likely than the state or national government to read your entire letter and actively respond to it.
Each state has a Governor, Senate, and Assembly - go to your state’s Secretary of State website to find who your representatives are and their contact information. If you live in California, you can find that information here.
First, make sure you know who your representatives and senators are based on where you live. Do a quick web search to check what their policy positions are and decide who you’d like to reach out to. You should also research what committees your representatives sit on and how their opinions are similar to or different from your own. Keep an eye on current events and bills being passed through Congress, and decide when and who to contact.
If you choose to write, find a “contact” tab on your chosen representative’s website. Remember that the Senate and the House of Representatives serve as a “checks and balances” tool for many of the president’s proposals. In your email (which is much faster and more efficient than snail mail), tell your representative what specific policy you support or oppose and briefly explain why. Stay factual, courteous, and concise. Also, use your own words--form emails are often deleted.
An email is not the only way to connect with your representatives, however. Phone calls may be an even more effective approach. Staffers keep track of call volume on specific issues and use the records to tell members of Congress how their constituents feel. Check out 5calls.org to learn more about efficiently contacting your government. Thesixtyfive.org also offers sample scripts that you can use if you want to speak against any of President Trump’s actions. For example, they offer this text for climate change:
“My name is <______>. I'm a constituent concerned about Trump's record of denying climate change. I ask that <Senator/Representative ______> publicly condemn Trump's threats to repeal the Clean Power Plan and withdraw from the Paris agreement. I want the <Senator/Representative> to refuse to compromise with Trump if he appoints climate change deniers.”
You’ll notice that this call is short, but specific. Use a similar structure if you create your own wording. Keep in mind that your call will go to voicemail if it’s outside East Coast business hours, but if you leave a message, your opinion should still be tallied when the office reopens. You can even call every few days to make a bigger difference in the records.
I would also recommend downloading the “Countable” phone app, which offers clear summaries of the most important people and issues in current politics and helps connect you to your representatives on the questions that matter to you. Another strategy is to meet with your representatives in person. Invite one to coffee (you have nothing to lose)!
You have one voice, but you can and should use it! The more individual citizens participate in politics, the greater the chance that our words will make a difference. Civil engagement is key to a healthy democracy. This participation includes getting educated on the issues, voting, discussing events with a variety of people, and contacting the government. To ignore your role in politics is to be part of the problem, but you can choose to be part of the solution instead.
By Spencer Robinson ‘20
In the last installment of his three-part blog series, Spencer Robinson connects Stanford’s dining system to that of nearby communities like East Palo Alto, and investigates what SSS’s own food project group is doing to bridge the gap in food access.
I rush into Ricker dining hall at the last minute and give a cheeky smile to the staff member who swipes me in. Catching my breath, I’ll grab a plate and hurriedly heap onto my plate my favourite dishes before the the staff take the full trays of steaming supper away. Pause. Full trays? At the end of dinner? You might think it a pity to discard all the carefully prepared dishes away. Fortunately, Ricker is actually one of several contributors of food donations on campus along with other dining halls and cafes, as well as some student events. SSS’s Food Group is working to institutionalize a more environmentally efficient and socially just way of using surplus food. To investigate more details of food redistribution on campus, I interviewed Erin Pang; one of the project coordinators of SSS’s food group to learn more about her motivations, current projects, and future aspirations.
Erin told me that several members of the Food Group have a personal connection to their work. A few of the members have worked in homeless shelters before, providing meals for patrons there. For instance, Ella (one of the team members) had experience growing and distributing fresh produce to people of lower-income communities in Brooklyn where fruits and veggies were lacking. Erin shared that “food is such a fundamental need for humans to live,” and there is certainly something special about sharing a meal with someone who needs one. Along with other socioeconomic inequalities come inequalities in access to healthy food. Feeling dissatisfied with “the stark contrast” in terms of food access here at Stanford compared to that in East Palo Alto among other neighborhoods, Erin got involved. Erin partners with Chris LeBoa to run SSS’s food project group, and their largest program is to recover unused food from Stanford’s dining halls and cafes and redistribute it to communities in need.
The Food Group works with SPOON - the Stanford Project on Hunger - in their food recovery program. SSS does a lot of the coordination with dining hall managers and cafe managers, while SPOON provides volunteers on a more consistent basis. Though daily collection of food on campus is difficult, the Food Group regularly takes donations from Ricker, Wilbur, Stern, Schwab and Branner dining halls; and the Russo, Law School and the Faculty Club Cafés. In the future, the SSS food group hopes to institutionalize the system so that all leftover food from the dining halls is donated without student involvement, perhaps by having one of the food bank programs come to Stanford to collect the food itself. Paid staff or interns working regularly on organizing food donations would certainly increase the amount of food that we donate as a campus.
Something else that Food Group does is to develop and distribute flyers and informational booklets about how to better manage food waste. They also do dorm waste trainings to try to change waste behavior by education. Reducing waste is far from intuitive and both student behavior and dining hall policies could do with some change after some consideration of the importance of using our food privileges responsibly.
While the dining halls and cafes are the places that create the most food waste, Erin pointed out that it would also be good for leftovers from student events to be donated. To that end, Food Group has been cooperating with the ASSU and the Office of Sustainability to form guidelines to encourage student organizations to donate food. Some faculty events already follow a set of criteria to reduce waste. Generally, any foodstuffs left out for less than two hours can be brought to the Haas Center freezer to be donated.
Yet the SSS Food Group’s aims span beyond their actions on campus. Erin wants to address the “root causes” of a lack of food access. Her plan is to learn more about the difficulty of food accessibility, and work to fill that “need gap” in cooperation with Collective Roots and other non-profits. Currently, Food Group goes to work days at Collective Roots to maintain their gardens. However, they are also working on an infographic to spread information about where healthy and affordable food can be found in East Palo Alto. Erin also expressed interest in starting community gardens at schools and expanding the network. While the gardens here at Stanford are here for aesthetic purposes, research, and supplemental food for some dining halls, in East Palo Alto they are primary source of fresh produce for many people.
Clearly, there is still a lot to be done about expanding access to healthy and sustainable food. But I’ve found it inspiring how such a small group of students have built connections with other student organizations and determinedly worked to execute their initiatives and make impactful change.
The issues I’ve discussed in this three-part series include problems with the access, distribution and wasteful disposal of food. Working to combat these problems involves consideration of both environmental and social issues because they are inextricably linked. My hope is that the stories of compassionate and motivated individuals working in nonprofit organizations, in retail restaurants and in student organizations have managed to inspire you to reassess your role in this local food system at Stanford and in its surrounding communities.
By Spencer Robinson '20
In the second installment of his food sustainability blog series, Spencer Robinson explores how the management of Stanford’s Russo Cafe is minimizing food waste and donating it to local communities.
I follow Chris LeBoa, one of SSS’s food project coordinators, and his cart into Russo Café and the staff greet us warmly. They all know him well and are happy to see him. Minutes later, Chris and I get to work. My nose is overcome by the exotic, sweet-smelling flavors of the vegetable stew that we pour into aluminum food trays. The smell reminds me that it's a good thing that someone else will have the chance to enjoy this. Chris and I are there to collect that leftover “food waste” as a part of SPOON--the Stanford Program on Hunger. I came to investigate the role of our cafes on campus in food waste and interviewed Chad, the current manager for Russo Café, as well as Melissa, one of the café’s employees.
Stanford has a total of 11 retail cafes that provide meals for us on campus. Russo Café is open for lunch from 11am-2pm everyday of the work week. I learned from Chad that quite a bit of work goes into planning food production at the cafés on campus. According to Chad, Russo “tries not to produce more food than necessary.” The café has a two-week rotating menu and the management team looks at figures of sales of specific food items for past weeks to help them determine how much food to make for the future. Salmon, for example, is one of the more popular options at Russo, so they know to make a lot of it. One of Russo’s assets is the flexibility of the chefs in the kitchen - they can cook up more food in real time if there is higher demand during lunch hours. Moreover, produce is ordered on a daily basis so all that is ordered is usually used for that day. Chad also noted that a lot of the staff have established careers here and thus also have an incentive to make sure that the café is being profitable. Since food waste results in higher costs, reducing waste is best for the café from a business perspective. This is in huge contrast to Chad’s previous job at the Santa Cruz boardwalk. There, he found that employees were a lot more wasteful because they weren’t as concerned about costs to the restaurant. Needless to say, excess food thrown out also incurs environmental costs due to a waste of water, land and energy to grow, harvest and distribute it.
Nonetheless, it’s impossible for Chad to predict exactly what and how much food that their customers will eat. What adds complexity to the problem is that Russo Café produces food for 3 additional locations on campus: The Law School Café, Alumni Café and Forbes Family Café. Understanding how much food should go where and for what costs is a larger issue. Most of the kitchen is used by Stanford Catering, and Chad thinks they probably produce more waste since event organizers prefer not to run out of food for guests. One more layer of complexity is that there are restrictions as to which food can be donated - often it has to do with the temperature conditions that a portion of food has been kept under. But overall, food waste increases costs to the cafés, so they seem to do all they can to minimize it.
Melissa informed me that SPOON started collecting food from Russo approximately 4 months ago. Before SPOON asked them to participate, Melissa said “We tossed it and it was a shame because it was a lot of food”. Now their leftovers are being put to better use. When I visited, we collected approximately 2 trays of stew, 2 trays of salad, a few small trays of sides, and a few chickens. We collected all of their food waste that day. Compost is of course one way to recycle nutrients, but SPOON’s donation seems to be a more equitable and socially responsible choice. SPOON collects food from Russo, Law School Café, the Faculty Club and several Dining Halls on Campus, including Ricker and Wilbur. They store it in the Haas Center’s freezer and then it is transferred to the Ecumenical Hunger Program in East Palo Alto which annually provides food for individuals and families with limited funds to buy food.
Russo Café’s cooperation with SPOON is an important step in the right direction in terms of social justice. According to the National Resources Defence Council, 40% of food goes uneaten while 1/8 of Americans still struggle to put enough food on the table. The terrible wastefulness in our food system is shockingly apparent. How does it make sense for so much food to be thrown away if there is still a large portion of the population that needs more choices (especially more healthy choices)? A lot of the food we collected from Russo such as their salads, soups and sandwiches are great food options to donate because they do indeed provide healthier options which are needed to reduce problems of poor life expectancy and high obesity rates, as described in my previous blog post.
My hope is that this food donation program continues to extend to all of Stanford’s dining establishments. It is a practical way to share the nutritious healthy food options accessible to us on a daily basis. Its beyond question that we, as individuals, and food services providers, should do whatever we can to make what is a shame to throw out, a joy to give.
By Spencer Robinson '20
In the first post of a 3-part series on local food sustainability, Spencer Robinson investigates the work of an organization in East Palo Alto called Collective Roots.
As you enter the dining hall and grab your plate, you’ll probably stroll around, turn your head, check the labels on the dishes over head. There are a myriad of options: fruits like pears and persimmons, protein foods like turkey and tofu, vegetables like golden beets and broccoli --its clear that the variety of fresh choices prepared for us by RD&E staff is a privilege. Outside the walls of the Stanford “bubble”, however, this diversity of wholesome, healthy food isn’t something you can heap thoughtlessly onto your plate. Just a few miles away, East Palo Alto is what the USDA labels a “Low Access” community in terms of food. Food access isn't just about having enough food—it’s about ensuring access to nutritious options for all the diverse food groups in a healthy diet. The lack of healthy food options is what justifies the classification of East Palo Alto as a food desert. In order to help improve food access, an organization called Collective Roots® , established in 2000, runs a communal garden and other programs for the “growing, sharing and eating” of nutritious foods. To get an idea of the value of growing healthy foods in a community like East Palo Alto, I interviewed Najiha Al Asmar who works as the nonprofit’s Manager of Community Initiatives.
First, Najiha further defined the concept of a food desert. A food desert is a place, especially in an urban area, in which there isn’t steady access to nutritious food. This is very true in East Palo Alto. Up until 2009, there were no supermarkets there at all. Now the situation is marginally better - there is now one supermarket (Mi Pueblo) for the 30,000 residents in the area. Convenience stores don’t really help to improve food access because they mostly sell nutritionally poor, processed foods. Lower incomes are part of the problem. Here, 13% of the population participates in the national Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) - compared to just 1% in Palo Alto. And ack of access to healthy food in East Palo Alto contributes to long-term health problems. Here, the life expectancy is just 62 years - 7 years below that of the rest of the county.
Collective Roots has been a strong agent of change in East Palo Alto by providing programs through which local residents have been able to increase control over their own food access. Collective Roots strives to create, in Najiha’s words, a “healthier, stronger, more connected community” of people in East Palo Alto. They do this by “empowering the people to grow their own food, or be able to purchase it”. Their farmer’s market brings farmers to the community to sell their fresh, organic produce to residents. They also have an incentive program, First Check, in which they allow each household to buy $20 extra of produce a month if they spend $20. Moreover, Collective Roots provides the opportunity for residents to start their own garden plots in either the communal gardens or in their own backyards. The group also conducts “Growing and Sharing” educational workshops for gardening and nutrition education. The organization provides tools, seed sharing programs and compost to help everyone effectively grow more of their own produce.
Collective Roots is making a large impact on the community. Gardening is a social activity, so kids work with their parents and volunteers to maintain the family crops. Given that over half of elementary school kids in this community are overweight or obese, it is evident that growing and eating fruits and vegetables and learning about their benefits could go a long way in improving long term health. Najiha emphasized the importance of fostering an appreciation for healthy foods in kids, in order to stop the cycle of limited food choices and poor health. She sees a lot of community members come in consistently to work in their gardens so it’s become a social gathering place. There is also a lot of cooperation and help from various parts of the community. “About a third of the whole operation here is volunteering,” Najiha told me. “Without them we wouldn’t be able to do a lot of our programming.”
The rewards of the program have been tremendous. Najiha has been personally moved by how happy and healthy people look working in the garden. People are “humbled and proud of what they’ve grown” because the growers are able to share the fruits of their labour with family and friends”. To Najiha, “Seeing people connected has been the most rewarding thing.”
It should be noted that Collective Roots still faces many obstacles in East Palo Alto. Problems involving low food access go along with problems of income inequality, environmental injustice and race. “East Palo Alto is in the heart of Silicon Valley, but a lot of these community members are working two, three jobs because they are lower income and also minorities so being able to outreach and getting these community members involved has been a struggle,” Najiha explained. Not all the community members have time to maintain the gardens. Moreover, “a lot of people don’t actually have access to internet or other technology that we on the outside have access to.” This makes mass emailing and texting somewhat less ineffective. So instead Najiha and her staff often go door to door or use flyers to spread the word. as well. This is apparently “beneficial in the fact that we’re able to be more personal”. Najiha considers it a challenge but also a blessing.
Given the problem of the divide, I asked Najiha if she had any advice on bridging our communities together to overcome some of these barriers. Najiha would love for volunteers to come to gardening workshops and spend more time just working alongside the gardeners with their family plots. Commitment and exposure seem to be the best remedy. Just being there and working with the families in their own gardening plots, learning about their experience and passing on that awareness is a great step.
When I volunteered at Collective Roots in November, I got a taste of awareness and engagement with the community. I worked with some fellow SSS members, Najiha, a volunteer from a nearby tech company and an old couple who had a garden there. We did simple but respectable manual labour - moving concrete rubble and turning over the compost heap. It was nothing spectacular, but it was truly refreshing for me to work outside alongside other people in the area and know that I was playing a small part in preparing the community garden for other residents to grow healthy fruits and vegetables.
Students can come build and install planter boxes, work on the community gardens, manage the compost pile, and more. Official work days are Thursdays and every other Saturday starting in the spring. Go to http://www.collectiveroots.org/volunteer/ for more details.
By Deirdre Francks '20
In these last few weeks before the new presidential term begins, emotions are running high. For many, these include feelings of confusion and despair. The past eight weeks have yielded countless news articles, opinion pieces and statistical analyses about the election of Donald Trump and its implications for the future, but it is impossible to predict exactly what is to come. I am deeply saddened by the outcome of this election, especially as cabinet appointments are announced, angry tweets are sent, and the impact of a campaign led by hate and ignorance comes to fruition in communities across America. I am devastated, yes, but not without hope and purpose.
I must admit, this sense of purpose I feel has not been without falter, for in the few days immediately following the election I felt powerless. It was hard to comprehend that the past eighteen months - the ludicrous campaign, nomination and eventual election of a politically inexperienced television personality– were not a dream, nor some kind of sick joke soon to be revealed. Some portion of the American public (a little less than half, it would appear) had spoken, and they wanted Donald Trump to leave his tower for the Oval Office. On election night I felt a crushing sense of dread. What would become of reproductive rights, immigration laws, climate action and so many other pressing issues?
On November 9th, in the midst of much despair, I attended a screening of a documentary called “Racing Extinction.” After 24 hours spent contemplating the future of the climate under a Trump presidency I was hardly in the mood to watch a documentary confirming my deepest fears about the natural world. Sure enough, I sat through footage covering the heart wrenching bleaching of coral reefs, illegal capture and trade of precious wildlife, and emission of carbon and methane captured on camera. My spirits sank as the film constantly stressed the importance of regulating and restricting those activities that take a serious toll on our planet. When the narrator directly urged the audience to vote for environmentally-friendly candidates my eyes welled with tears– a blend of despair and rage. If only it were that easy to elect candidates who will fight for climate justice.
My thoughts throughout the majority of the film were bleak; if we don’t start making serious moves to reverse climate change how will we ever change course? Do I really have the willpower to study and work on climate issues when the field is so depressing? As so many of these thoughts swirled in my head I wished desperately to be anywhere else besides watching what seemed to be a climate doomsday film.
But then something in the documentary gave me the most important reminder I could have received in that moment. When faced with pessimism about humankind’s capability to change, cinematographer and marine conservationist Shawn Heinrichs, the man behind the film, invokes a proverb; “Better to light one candle than curse the darkness.”
As with any kind of activism or social struggle it’s so easy to feel that there will never be enough progress made, never enough voices heard. For every tree planted, how many are clear-cut in the Amazon? With each climate policy introduced, how many legislators and their constituents are quick to oppose it? It can be disheartening to feel that conservation efforts will never sufficiently offset humankind’s consumption. In this mindset I have often been guilty of surrendering to pessimism.
But then I am reminded that this is how movements are strengthened and progress is made. One hundred years ago, women were on the verge of gaining the right to vote in the U.S., an accomplishment preceded by a long and tumultuous struggle, and now we cannot imagine a world without this liberty. Fifty years ago, gay rights activists did not expect to see the legalization of gay marriage in their lifetime, but that did not stop them from taking action and ultimately achieving a Supreme Court victory. I dream of a time when climate awareness and protection is simply ingrained in societal behaviors; when environmental policies are commonplace and conservation efforts universal.
We can each light a candle, every day, by making the extra effort to advocate for the planet. We can do it by starting a conversation with someone who wants to learn about climate change, or just by skipping a trip to the mall in favor of a jaunt in the woods. When faced with an issue as grand and complex as climate change focusing on all that has yet to be done can be daunting. Why not instead focus on each victory? And when disheartened by the struggle of climate advocacy under a new administration, let us seek to illuminate the darkness. The incoming administration, whatever their stance on climate change and protecting our planet, cannot overpower the light that we create.
Welcome to our blog!
This is a forum for students to share their writing on intersectional environmental topics, curated by Students for a Sustainable Stanford. Writers of all backgrounds, abilities, and perspectives are welcome.