September 24, 2023

WEIRENS | A Fruitless Endeavor

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The hoggish students lined up, nudging the line forward, eager to get their evening grubs. There was a bountiful selection of different salads, vegetables, tofu, traditional American courses, Asian fusion, pizza, homemade pasta, yogurt and eight different flavors of Cornell Dairy ice cream, not including the three different flavors of soft serve churning in the corner. Almost every day is a good day to be a hungry student at Cornell. Our talented chefs work hard to feed us well. However, there is one glaring shortcoming that Cornell has: There is almost no fruit to be found in any of our dining halls. A couple of wedges of under ripe cantaloupe, picked over and in a puddle of juice along with a basket of bruised, unripe bananas and crusty oranges by the entrance is the usual offering.

Given how sickly the average Cornellian seems to be (go sit in a lecture hall and be serenaded by a symphony of coughing and sneezing) and how little sunlight the average student here gets, fruit is especially essential. The cramped conditions of dorm living and Collegetown housing are ideal breeding grounds for the spread of disease, and one of the few tangible ways that Cornell can boost our immune systems is by providing more fruit on campus. I know countless students who are perfectly healthy that come to Cornell and are chronically ill while here. It’s a common practice among parents, mine included, to send their kids to Cornell with packets of vitamin C powder, knowing that we cannot depend on our $7,000 annual meal plan to provide us with adequate nutrition to keep us healthy. All the tasty pizza and ice cream made me corpulent and jolly, but now I just want my nose to stop running. 

The crowning irony of this phenomenon is that Cornell has our own research Orchards on campus, and we’re arguably the greatest school for agriculture in the world. How come our fruit selection is so appalling? Why is Appel Dining Hall, during peak apple season, in the middle of upstate New York, using year-old apples from Washington state as their fruit offering? As a former intern of the Cornell Orchards, I launched an investigation into the reasoning behind our reality.  

Talking with one of my former Orchard bosses, Professor Dr. Gregory Peck, he explained that historically Cornell Orchards has in fact been able to meet demands for apples in our dining halls. However, a recent blight of an apple tree disease called fireblight, followed by an unusual frost last May, has devastated both research and yields for the past two years. 

Still, upstate New York is known for its apple orchards. Talking with local apple orchard owners, they explained that although they were harmed by the frost, they were still able to produce limited yields. This variance in damage of these orchards by frost, despite being so close geographically, can be explained in part by differences in elevation, air currents, timing of blossoming, and proximity to the lake effect. The decreased yields experienced statewide force our local farmers to increase prices, making them lose out to farmers in far away parts of the country unharmed by frost, such as Washington state. In their determination to get the cheapest possible products, Cornell is hurting both our planet and our local economy by not buying from the local supply. If buying local in our community’s time of need is beyond the budget of Cornell Dining, the University has the full capabilities to produce the necessary funds to support our farmers and feed our students better. 

Dr. Margaret Smith, Associate Dean and Director of the Agricultural Experiment Station, also said that Cornell Dining buying bulk apples from one supplier eases the logistical process. It’s simple to order large amounts of fruit from one massive supplier far away, rather than placing multiple orders from multiple suppliers locally. The result is our current abysmal selection, which in no way meets the needs of students. With a little bit of extra coordination and effort, and perhaps an increased budget, I believe that stocking our dining halls with fresh, local apples this fall is entirely possible. 

Beyond just apples and our Orchards, Cornell can fund more commercial-scale student efforts to grow fruit on and for our campus. Smith College, in Northampton, MA, has a special fruit endowment program specially devoted to providing their students with ample supplies of fresh fruit. Cornell has an incredible opportunity right under its nose. In the spirit that Smith College has endowed fruit for their students, Cornell can do that too. In fact, they can do it with considerably greater ease, given we have a massive student population studying agriculture that would be enthusiastic to pitch in the labor to grow the fruit, receiving additional education in the process and cutting carbon emissions. If sustainability is so important to Cornell that they are digging a two mile hole on campus, why can’t they shell out a bit more to promote both sustainability for the planet and their students’ immune systems? 

For fruit expenses that go beyond Cornell Dining’s budget, and to help navigate seasonality, Cornell can endow further fruit offerings, even if they don’t come from the orchards. Fruit is so rare here that the appearance of grapes, which I’ve only ever seen in two dining halls, creates a frenzy among students. “Grape pickers,” is a well-known slang term for students who barrel forward with their reusable containers when they see grapes and carefully sift through the otherwise undesirable fruit salad for every last grape for optimal hoarding. This kind of desperation is ridiculous, but accurately portrays the severity of this situation. 

May I remind Cornell administration that even though it’s not the most exciting or eye-catching use of funds, nourishing your students is still a worthwhile pursuit. The lack of fruit in dining halls is a problem other campuses face, but they are able to overcome it. This is something Cornell has yet to do. Using the Orchards is not the only advantage that Cornell has available to them. They can collaborate with local farms and orchards to acquire regionally grown, higher quality fruit, and they can harness our existing human resources to grow more of our own. Beyond these efforts, Cornell can still contribute funds to ensure that this issue is fully resolved. These funds will be allocated and coordinated when Cornell determines this issue is a priority. Fruit is important to students’ diets and Cornell is important to the fruit industry. But are students’ diets important to Cornell?

Aurora Weirens is a third year student in the College of Arts & Sciences. Her fortnightly column The Northern Light illuminates student life and culture. She can be reached at [email protected]

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