Food Fosters Community at Gonzaga University

By Kate Vanskike-Bunch, Senior Editor, Gonzaga University

The empty bowl (Photo by Gonzaga University)

The empty bowl (Photo by Gonzaga University)

According to a Zen koan (riddle), a young monk asked his teacher for the key to enlightenment. The master said, “Did you eat? Then wash your bowl.”

While there are variations on this story and its interpretation, what lingers is the notion of gratitude. Did I just eat? Washing my bowl should be an act of thankfulness for the meal I just enjoyed.

In a recent feature in Gonzaga Magazine (the primary publication of Gonzaga University), students and faculty members highlighted the many ways we can show appreciation for our bounty. Here, we are happy to share a few that rise to the top of the menu: considering the realities of food scarcity; ethical eating; and understanding the power of a meal to create community.

The Empty Cupboard
Eating three times a day is an act that many of us take for granted. Perhaps we remember to offer thanks before partaking. Maybe we give great thought to what we’ll prepare for the next meal. Once in a while, we take extra care to follow a special recipe and at other times, it’s more enjoyable to eat out and try a tasty new concoction.

So many options. And yet, more than 12 million children in America struggle with hunger. In an average month, 44.2 million people participate in the USDA Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), two-thirds of whom are children, elderly or disabled.

In years past, food issues concerning college students tended to focus on eating disorders like bulimia and anorexia. While those illnesses remain very real, a new trend has emerged as a serious topic of concern in higher education: food insecurity, the gripping fear of not having enough to eat.

As a result, more college campuses are launching food pantries to serve students, many of whom also qualify for Federal financial aid programs and/or hold down jobs while in school. Even those who live on campus can find themselves in situations where three meals a day seems a luxury.

According to Jim White, Dean of Student Financial Services at Gonzaga, the expense of room and board can be a challenge for families, especially when a meal plan is required for freshmen and sophomores. Occasionally, students will request for assistance with their food expenses; the University and its food services partner, Sodexo, help them by finding funding and solutions. White says, “When students get stressed financially, usually one of the first things they try to do is drop their meal plan or try to identify a cheaper alternative.”

Coffee, sugar and chocolate (photo by gonzaga University)

Coffee, sugar and chocolate (photo by gonzaga University)

Ethical Eating
Upon reading Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle as a seventh-grader, Ellen Maccarone, associate professor of philosophy, was moved to live life for a while as a vegetarian. It was the beginning of her understanding that what we choose in our everyday lives can reflect our deeply held values.

Maccarone teaches a philosophy class in which students cook from scratch and take field trips to local coffee roasters and food co-ops, all with the intent of encouraging participants to reflect on what they consume. She suggests that that can be achieved through intentional thought about our consumer values, acknowledging the human factor of food production, and giving consideration to animals. She says, “It’s about living our values through what we eat – using [them] as motivators.We need to make choices that tell businesses what our values are.”

Maccarone is a fan of writing letters to companies, but acknowledges that there are other ways to use the power of purchase. For example, goodguide.com shows how brands measure up, and mobile apps such as Buycott allow you to scan a product’s barcode to learn whether your personal values are upheld with that selection.

The Certified Fair Trade logo seen on many products in stores across America is an indicator of companies that embrace fair-trade practices, such as paying a living wage to employees. While it’s nearly impossible to ensure that all of our food is fair-trade certified, there are a few purchases we can make that have a big impact: Coffee, sugar and chocolate. Maccarone explains that these products are made in equatorial regions where people are more likely to face exploitation. Because we consume so many of these items, buying them fair-trade sends a clear message of our consumer values.

Another element of intentionality in food choices is evaluating the consumption of meat. While there has been a rise in the quality and availability of vegetarian and vegan options for meals, many people can’t imagine life without meat. Maccarone suggests thoughtfully considering how animals are raised: Are they free-range or caged? Are they grain-fed in factory farm warehouses? Do they endure abysmal conditions? “Visiting local farms is a great way to see for yourself whether eating animals aligns with your personal values,” she says.

Transformative Powers
Gonzaga’s alumni chaplain, Rev. Stephen Hess, S.J., recalls the impact that a warm meal had on a group of people impacted by a 2008 winter storm in Spokane, WA. Affectionately called “Snowmaggedon,” it left the city nearly paralyzed.

For Gonzaga students, it was finals week. The disruption of exams could have been celebrated as a gift from God if only they could have escaped for their winter break destinations; instead, hundreds of students were stranded. Limited numbers of faculty and staff were able to drive to campus. Those on hand worked together to manage the chaos, which included figuring out how to feed students as the food supply was depleted.

Fr. Hess recalls, “It so happened that the semi-formal holiday party for faculty and staff was scheduled for that Friday evening. The grand party would have had spectacular decorations and fine foods representing many nationalities – which soon became the only food on hand to feed students.”

Sharing a meal together (Photo by Gonzaga University)

Sharing a meal together (Photo by Gonzaga University)

And thus, an unusual feast took place among stranded students and staff in a cafeteria transformed by elaborate party décor. “They were in awe,” says Fr. Hess. “Students took pictures of the food to send to their parents. One student started crying and said, ‘There is a God!’”

If the food, decorations and happiness of the students were not enough, something far more spectacular happened that evening. Students and staff dined together and enjoyed each other’s company. People who had been stressed now shared in an experience, a communion of spirits where new relationships were built.

Fr. Hess recalls, “God became very visible to a community that was in need of hope.”

These stories come from the Spring 2017 issue of Gonzaga Magazine. You can read more at gonzaga.edu/tabletalk.