Honors student provides food for thought on sustainable agriculture and making the most of college

Erin OlschewskiFor most college students, the most thought put into food is whether one should eat a pizza or some ramen for dinner. For Erin Olschewski, a senior at the U majoring in communication, food is much more than what tastes good and fuels her body—it’s what’s guided her entire undergraduate career.

Originally from Moab, Utah, being raised in a small town on 3 acres of land provided Olschewski with a strong connection to her environment and community. Olschewski’s family had a large vegetable garden, an orchard with lush apricot and apple trees and plenty of space for their rabbits and chickens to roam freely.

“I can still remember being young and picking carrots out of the ground,” said Olschewski. “My mom really instilled the values of being connected with the earth, our food and our animals from a very young age.”

Olschewski also feels a strong connection to her food due to a lack of vegetarian options to suit her needs and values while growing up.

“I’ve always been hyper-aware of what was in my food, so I know how important it is to be engaged in food.”

When she started at the U, Olschewski originally thought she would study environmental studies to further her knowledge of sustainable food or education, but chose communications because it “provides many basic skills that could open a lot of doors.”

“I wasn’t interested in being put in a box, so I actually didn’t declare my major until sophomore year. Communications gave me the most flexibility in terms of the skills I learned and could apply.”

Olschewski said the U was initially intimidating for being three times larger than the size of her entire town. The Honors College helped distill the large school into a manageable community.

“It was difficult to adjust and find a group where I felt like I belonged. The small honors environment taught me how to seek out smaller communities,” she said.

For her honors thesis, Olschewski studied children’s educational television to determine whether and how they tackle social issues (defined as having three components: social justice, nutrition and sustainability) in relation to food. Olschewski watched three seasons of “Sesame Street” as a case study.

Her preliminary findings show that although nutrition is often mentioned, social justice and sustainability are not.

“The show encourages viewers to eat more fruits and vegetables, but has a lot of room for improvement in incorporating dialogue about social justice, like how other children may go to bed hungry, and sustainable agriculture. As a culture, the way we’ve learned to eat has progressed, but the content for nutrition sketches hasn’t changed.”

This fall, as a sustainability ambassador, Olschewski spearheaded a movement with the U’s Sustainability Resource Center to encourage the university to sign the Real Food Campus Commitment. By signing the commitment, a university commits to purchase at least 20 percent of “real” food by 2020. Real food is defined as community-based, fair, ecologically sound and humane.

In March 2015, the U signed the commitment, making it the largest institution and first Pac-12 school to sign on.

“The administration has been nothing but extremely supportive of our endeavors. I think other campuses might have a hard time moving forward because their administration is not on board, but that certainly hasn’t been the case with us,” said Olschewski.

“Throughout my undergraduate career, there’s been so much synergy between my classwork, volunteer activities and extracurricular involvement. Food is the common thread that pulls together all of my interests.”

Olschewski advises that students seeking their passion try everything out at least once. If it’s not engaging or doesn’t feel right, let it go.

“If you don’t let things go, then when the right opportunity comes along, you won’t recognize it. Be critical of your engagement and ask yourself if the activities you’re involved in are meaningful or important to you.”

After graduation, Olschewski will spend the summer in Italy teaching English and ultimately hopes to work with the Food Corps, focusing on children’s food education and sustainable agriculture, or complete a Real Food Challenge fellowship for one year.