Volume 30 · Number 4 · Summer 2013
The education of a food rebel
A pioneer in the sustainable food movement looks back at how she tried to transform the university — and found herself changed too.
Ann Evansat the Davis Farmers Market, which she co-founded.
I was a 17-year-old freshman in 1968 when I came to Davis from an urban, paved and mostly foggy California city, known more for its free speech and political movements than its cows and agriculture. I never returned to Berkeley. In the five years it took me to graduate, I had become an Aggie and made Davis my home. But my college years were tumultuous, with me questioning everything I was learning. What kept me sane was organizing the Davis Food Co-op and the Davis Farmers Market.
As a freshman, I explored the campus, heading into town only on occasion. As a sophomore, I became more aware of problems in the world around me. I wanted to help solve them and fell head over heels for the “back-to-the-land movement.” I adopted its philosophy of organic and sustainable agriculture, natural foods and local food distribution.
Therein I sowed the seeds of doubt about my formal education. I began to believe not all was as it should be in my classes. I was at odds with UC Davis and its teachings.
I had learned in freshman social psychology about cognitive dissonance, where a person either changes what she believes or changes her environment so that her environment and beliefs match. If I weren’t a compulsive finisher, I would have dropped out of school to farm. Instead, at 20, I tried to change the university.
For example, in dairy science I argued that raw milk was nutritionally superior to pasteurized milk, safe and should be readily available to consumers. My professor, when questioned, acknowledged that he had grown up drinking raw milk on his parents’ dairy farm; I argued that as an urban consumer, I should have access to the same product. He explained the science of the dangers of drinking raw milk, debunked my nutritional views and, finally, said he had seen death due to raw milk consumption.
That probably should have stopped me, but youth is invincible. Instead, I organized a raw-milk buying club, tolerated the point-of-sale sign at the Dixon dairy where I filled my gallon jars each week — “This milk not fit for human consumption.” And I lied; I assured the farmer it was for our pets.
Why as a vegetarian I enrolled in a class called “Muscle as Meat” is surely worthy of psychiatric attention. When the teacher handed me a midterm one day on my way into class, and I said, “What’s this?” I knew I needed to pay more attention. To this day I recall the process animal muscle goes through to become meat, and now I eat meat.
In between wondering who I was, I asked myself if I was one of those people I learned about in history class who didn’t believe in science. Then again, I thought, might the problem be that the research was not being conducted on topics that would scientifically prove my views, like I had learned in my statistics class?
A case in point is the nutrition of conventionally raised foods versus organically raised. I argued to no avail with my nutrition professors that there was a difference, but acquiesced that, at the time, there wasn’t industry interest in funding such research. I saw the futility of my academic career in nutrition and changed to consumer food science.
Had I thought more scientifically, or been more determined, I might have designed an experiment for my sensory analysis class. I could have investigated whether there was a statistically significant difference in taste between organic and conventional products. My professor would have helped with that one for free; gosh, I could have even published the results.
Instead, I wrote my senior paper on something I abhorred—The Codex Alimentarius (Book of Food), a collection of international standards for food production and safety. Encountering this just after having learned of the Green Revolution, I felt the whole world was against my views. The Codex was established, my economics professor argued, as a critical step in increasing international trade. I countered that international food definitions would eliminate diversity in food and thereby in cultures. That was, I knew from my rhetoric class, reducing the argument to the absurd.
My food packaging class was the corker. Already running the 500-member buying club off campus I was against food packaging. At the co-op, our cheese came in 40-pound blocks and our whole grains in 50-pound sacks. For class, I designed a water-soluble tape of rice paper that contained vegetable seeds spaced perfectly for planting. “Not the assignment,” my professor said, acknowledging, however, that it was creative packaging. “I asked for packaging for food, not seeds.”
Thus my final year was filled focusing on my ideals off campus and completing my assignments correctly on campus. Mercifully, I graduated, and the Davis Food Co-op and the Davis Farmers Market went on to become iconic institutions. Though I have focused my career on creating local food systems and changing food patterns, I now take things little by little; I’ve mellowed over the years.
Recently my college, the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, gave me an Award of Distinction. I couldn’t have been happier to receive it from this college in particular. “We’ve both matured,” I said in accepting the honor. “I don’t know who’s changed more, you or me. The university is devoted to the goal of sustainability and I have a larger world view of food and agricultural production.”
Ann M. Evans ’74 is a former mayor of Davis, co-founder of the Davis Farmers Market and the Davis Food Co-op, co-author of The Davis Farmers Market Cookbook (Mirabelle Press, 2012), and a partner in Evans & Brennan, which specializes in school lunch from scratch. She lives in Davis amid an edible landscape with her husband, several chickens and 60,000 bees. Follow her blog, Who's Cooking School Lunch.