The cardboard box was waiting on the front steps when Alejandro “Alex” Torres ’20 stepped outside on Saturday morning. It must have been delivered while he was still eating breakfast. As he eased the book out of the package, Torres stared down at the photo of the smiling, sandy-haired author on the cover. Where Am I Eating? An Adventure through the Global Food Economy by Kelsey Timmerman was Torres’ first assignment for St. Edward’s. He and the other 863 members of the freshman class would read it as part of the 2016–2017 Freshman Studies Common Theme, food justice.
The August heat was thick and damp in San Benito, 8 miles from the Rio Grande, and Torres brought the book inside. The house wasn’t big, but now that Torres’ brother had moved out, he had his own room for the very first time. Torres sat down at his desk and started reading.
Timmerman hailed from Indiana, but he was a world traveler asking a serious question: Who produces the food Americans eat? The book began with his quest to find the farmer who grew the Starbucks Colombian roast he drank every morning (spoiler: the Colombian farmers had never heard of Starbucks). He traveled to Ivory Coast, where he met a cocoa farm worker whose story suggested he was enslaved, and to Nicaragua, where he met men disabled by the dangerous lobster-diving trade. Throughout his travels Timmerman met farmers who had sacrificed everything for their job and received very little in return.
The stories were new, but Torres recognized the characters. After immigrating from Mexico years before, his parents had become migrant farmworkers. Born in Washington, Torres moved with his family to the Valley at age 6, when his grandmother was diagnosed with cancer. But his father would return to the Pacific Northwest to pick apples, cherries and asparagus. Sometimes a year or two passed between his father’s visits to San Benito. More recently, while working in a cotton gin in the Valley, his father had cut off his middle finger — an injury that rendered him unable to work for a year. His mother, a healthcare provider for the elderly, started picking up extra shifts. Torres would wake at 5 a.m. to have breakfast with her and sometimes stay up until 10 p.m. when she came home.
The summer before his junior year, Torres visited his father in Washington, hoping to work with him in the fields. The elder Torres told him no: Alex was too good of a student, an AP Scholar who would enter the College Assistance Migrant Program (CAMP) at St. Edward’s with a year’s worth of college credits. He needed to focus on his biology studies and his plans to become a pediatric dentist.
Torres finished the book by dinnertime. Later that week, he got an email from St. Edward’s: Timmerman was coming to campus that fall. Immediately, Torres opened Twitter on his phone and sent Timmerman a direct message:
Good afternoon, Mr. Timmerman, I just wanted to tell you that I really enjoyed reading your book. … I come from humble beginnings. My parents are migrant workers and they have picked and cultivated crops for most of their lives to provide for my education. Thank you for sharing farmers’ hard work so that people understand the pride of being a farmer and show respect to their hard work.
Within minutes, Timmerman replied:
It was my honor to tell these stories... You are a testament to the sacrifice and hard work your parents put forth! Congrats on being at such a great school and having such a bright future. Hope I get a chance to meet you when I visit SEU.
Flying home to California after visiting family in Chicago, Sally Moceyunas ’20 opened her copy of Where Am I Eating? Timmerman’s travels reminded her of the trip her Bay Area church took each summer to Tijuana, where the parishioners met people who worked in factories for electronics companies like Panasonic. Moceyunas, a bilingual education major, was fluent enough in Spanish to understand that the workers weren’t earning a fair wage, and that the company had given them a house, but three families had to share it. Now she’d learned a similarly sobering backstory about food. She stared out the window at the Midwestern grain fields below. Everything we buy affects other people, she thought.
Sprawled on her bed on a Saturday afternoon, Miranda Higgins ’20 shook her head at Timmerman’s account of the brutal conditions faced by banana harvesters and cocoa farmers. Each day that week she, too, had harvested crops at one of the many small organic farms near her home in New Hampshire. Since the beginning of the summer she had arrived at the farm before 8 a.m. to pick green beans, twisting the leafy plants back to pluck handful after handful. She snapped Swiss chard leaves from their stems and untangled wayward tomato vines. The farmer hired teenage staff partly to ensure enough labor for the harvest and to impress upon them all the effort that goes into farming.
The work was hard, but the weather was nice, and sometimes Higgins got to taste the vegetables. The farmers Timmerman met had no such luxuries. In fact, Higgins thought, unlike herself, they didn’t get to choose whether to farm, or under what conditions. I'm glad the author traveled so many places and met these farmers, she thought, because most of us don’t stop to think about where our food comes from.
The Common Theme is a shared educational experience for every freshman, regardless of major or residence hall, and one that introduces them to the university’s mission. Food justice is a particularly expansive topic, says Director of Freshman Studies Alex Barron. “It encompasses justice for farmworkers and all the people who bring food to you. It touches on the idea of fair trade and compensating people ethically for produce. But it’s also about: Is your food local? Is it organic? If there are animals involved, how are they treated? And it ties in to hunger and scarcity and food deserts.”
And it’s something everyone can relate to: Everyone eats.
In early October, Torres and Timmerman met face to face when the author visited campus. Timmerman visited a class and attended a reception in his honor before speaking to the entire freshman class.
The Hunt Hall cafeteria was crowded as Torres, Timmerman and two other students searched for a table. “The food service sources as much produce as possible from local farms,” Torres explained. “And we compost our leftovers so they don’t go into the landfill. It makes St. Edward’s literally part of the community.”
Timmerman nodded. “Great idea.”
“Austin is a very sustainable city,” Torres added. “It’s one of the first things I noticed when I moved here.”
That afternoon, Moceyunas waited to chat with the author at a reception. The Honors student wanted to ask Timmerman a question that had been gnawing at her. Several of her high school friends had paid attention to what they ate, trying to minimize their diet’s impact on the environment. But they were all vegetarian or vegan, a commitment Moceyunas respected but wasn’t willing to make herself.
When it was her turn to talk with Timmerman, she asked if he was vegetarian; to her surprise, he said no, adding that there were other ways to be a conscious consumer of food. “That really emphasized that you don’t have to be vegetarian or vegan to be food aware,” Moceyunas said. “So I could still be conscious about what I eat or buy, but in an even greater sense because I’m being conscious about how it’s affecting people as well as animals and plants.”
As darkness fell, the Class of 2020 streamed across campus and into the Recreation and Convocation Center. Higgins arrived early. As the seats filled around her she skimmed her copy of Where Am I Eating? and considered how she could apply it to her life. She’d been a vegetarian for two years, since a high school teacher had asked her class to consider whether they thought eating meat was acceptable. I really don’t think it’s okay, Higgins realized, so I should just stop doing it. Now she lived in an apartment with her sister Kasey, a junior at St. Edward’s and a vegan, and cooked most of her meals: frozen veggie burgers, rice, potatoes, vegetables. They bought groceries at Walmart because of the low prices, but Higgins started to reconsider. Maybe she could buy produce at an Austin farmers market, like the ones in New Hampshire.
Timmerman strode onto stage. “The worst place I’ve ever visited is the dump in Phnom Penh, Cambodia,” he told his audience. “I was visiting the garment factories in Southeast Asia for my first book, Where Am I Wearing?, and one of the locals took me there. It’s pile after gigantic pile of trash, some of it burning and emitting toxic fumes. People were picking through the dump, looking for things that had value, for $1 a day. Most of them were former farmers, which made me wonder: What’s going on at the farm that makes the dump a better opportunity?”
That question led to Where Am I Eating?, for which Timmerman traveled the world but continually returned to concepts he’d studied in college liberal arts classes like anthropology and sociology. “Don’t lose sight of the fact that [education] can inspire curiosity and change the way you see the world,” he said.
“I leave you with a question,” he finished. “What will your impact be?”
When the applause had died down, Higgins, an English Literature major, walked to the microphone. “You have a passion for traveling and meeting people, and there are other products you could write about,” she said. “Are you writing another book?”
“Not right now,” Timmerman told her. “I cofounded The Facing Project, where writers help people in their community tell challenging stories. Are you a writer?” Higgins nodded. “We need writers and editors. Check out our website.”
She scanned it on her phone as she stood in line for Timmerman to sign her book. It might be a good pursuit for next summer. The line inched forward, finally bringing her face to face with Timmerman, the first author she’d met in person. He thanked her before opening the book and writing the words she would carry with her: Keep writing. Stories can change the world.
In addition to Timmerman’s visit, freshmen watched documentaries, participated in a march for farmworker rights, attended a play and visited a local farm as part of the Common Theme experience. In May, the students in a food-focused literature class and a section of the American Experience will travel to Costa Rica for a trip that revisits concepts from the book.
The aromas of coffee and hot waffles drifted through Republic Square in downtown Austin, along with spirited strains from a klezmer band. Moceyunas, Higgins and 10 other freshmen wandered through the dozens of booths at the Sustainable Food Center’s farmers market, a weekly panorama of local produce, crafts and prepared foods.
The group had carpooled from campus to the market for a Saturday adventure. After getting breakfast and exploring the booths, they would travel to the source of some of the produce sold there: the Urban Roots farm on the banks of Boggy Creek in east Austin.
When the students arrived at the farm they were greeted by A.J. Ragosa ’12, the farm’s program manager. “Welcome to Urban Roots,” she began. “We grow 25,000 pounds of vegetables each year, and we hire 30 high school interns, but” — she gestured to the couple dozen people bent over the rows —“most of it is harvested by volunteers.”
Ragosa led the students inside the shed where onions and garlic dry for several months after harvest. She explained the drip irrigation system that deposits water close to the plants’ roots, a conservation measure that fascinated Moceyunas, who hails from drought-stricken California. Ragosa pointed out the hives where 60,000 bees lived, and she picked garlic chives for the visitors to taste, straight from the ground.
“Now let’s weed one of these rows of Swiss chard,” Ragosa said, gesturing to a long row of the reddish leaves. Higgins knelt and began tugging stray plants from the damp soil. Before long she had slipped into a meditative state, just as she had while weeding on the farm in New Hampshire. At the market Higgins and her sister, who tagged along on the trip, had bought vegan pastries for breakfast and carrots, broccoli and kale for the week’s groceries. In the car they’d tried one of the carrots. “This is what food is supposed to taste like,” Higgins told her sister. “It’s so much more intense than a carrot you’d buy at Walmart.” She redoubled her commitment to shop at the farmers market instead. “It’s worth the extra money,” she said. “I want to support local farmers instead of big companies.”
The freshmen returned home for Thanksgiving: to family, friends, familiar food and a realization that they had begun to change in college. But there wasn’t time to think about it: only two weeks remained in the semester, one of them packed with finals.
The drive to the Valley had taken forever. Traffic had stretched the trip to San Benito, normally five hours, into eight. But Torres, his cousins, and his girlfriend, Kelly — a fellow CAMP student — had made the most of their long weekend. They ate turkey, the three cakes Torres’ godmother had made, and s’mores.
Now Torres was back on campus, studying for finals. He was trying to break the burger-a-day habit he’d picked up and “put more thought into what I’m putting into myself.” It was another way to show the respect for farmers that was integral to Torres’ idea of food justice. “It’s about appreciating the farmers and the hard work they put into it, and not throwing away your food, but conserving it — because a lot of people take it for granted.”
In Mountain View, California, Thanksgiving Day had dawned chilly and damp, but the drizzle didn’t stop Moceyunas and her family from running the local Turkey Trot race or playing their annual neighborhood soccer game. Their traditional Thanksgiving dinner included turkey, mashed potatoes and sides, as well as modified dressing and gravy to accommodate Moceyunas’ gluten-intolerant grandfather. Eating a homecooked meal was a welcome luxury; she missed sit-down dinners with her family.
Moceyunas had noticed that, while she continued to refine her definition of food justice, she had few opportunities to apply it. She’d taken a picture of the labels in the appendix of Where Am I Eating? — logos that marked foods as fair trade or organic — and kept it in her phone for trips to the grocery store. But, as a Dujarié Hall resident, she seldom shopped for food, save for the dried fruit labeled “USDA Organic” sold in the Quick Dip convenience store on campus. “I haven’t bought much food since making this revelation, so it’s hard for me to say, ‘Yes, I’m an active participant in being food conscious,’” she said. “But I think I should try.”
The Thanksgiving spread at the Higgins home accommodated the household’s various diets with a real turkey, tofu turkey, veganized sweet potatoes and other sides. Back in Austin, Higgins had started to cook just a bit more: kale chips, vegetable wraps. And she had fulfilled the challenge she’d set herself. For the past two months she had purchased all her vegetables from farmers markets. Because they cost a little more than at Walmart, she had made sure to cook them all instead of letting them waste away in the refrigerator. About a third came from the Urban Roots booth at the farmers market; the farm visit had made such an impression, she even focused her last assignment for speech class on how other students could get involved.
“My definition of ‘food justice’ has changed to reflect morality a lot more,” Higgins said. “I started out thinking of it as a society where people are treated equally for their work, and everyone appreciates one another’s work and rewards it. But I’ve also realized how big of a connecting factor food is morally. You have to realize where it comes from, and who makes it, and that those are people too. And, potentially, that can turn into a really cool relationship you have with those people.”
By Robyn Ross
Photography by Whitney Devin ’10