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Inspired by this year’s undergraduate common reading book, Annie Leonard’s The Story of Stuff, Tufts students have been thinking a lot about “stuff” recently. In a world where items are acquired, consumed, and disposed of every day, questions of where all that stuff comes from and where it all goes cannot be avoided.

Recently, the Office of Sustainability worked with students from the Tufts Sustainability Collective and Hillel’s Moral Voices to explore those questions and to raise awareness about the impact of consumerism among their fellow Jumbos.  Wanting to explore these issues through a single, tangible example, they teamed up with the Tufts Dining to tell the story of America’s favorite fruit: bananas.

“Tufts goes through 100,000 pounds of bananas every year, and we don’t often stop to think about where all those bananas come from, or about the impact of their consumption has on the world,” said Anne Elise Stratton, A15, communications intern for the Office of Sustainability, who played a lead role in bringing the story of bananas to life.

The students transformed Dewick-MacPhie Dining Center, setting up an interactive display describing all aspects of banana cultivation, worker and labor issues, transport and storage, consumption, and disposal.

“It’s really important to think about our food,” said Katharine Lynch, A15, who manned a table exploring bananas and labor issues.  “People should know what we’re eating and where it comes from.”

Sara Gardner, A16, who also volunteered for the event added, “It’s been really interesting to learn about agricultural systems and to help others understand of the impact of the entire process, cradle to grave.”

The event, which took place on Campus Sustainability Day and National Food Day, preceded a talk by Leonard, who came to campus later that evening. Speaking in a packed Cohen auditorium, Leonard shared her eye-opening account of the impact of consumerism on health, communities, and the environment.

Stratton said the story of bananas is a perfect example of the long-term impact of consumerism.

“A company called United Fruit turned what had been an exotic tropical fruit into a household staple by bulldozing large areas of rain forest and paying their workers as little as possible,” explained Stratton. “The impact of their methods is still being felt today and there are still important ethical decisions to be made when it comes to selecting a banana.”

Stratton pointed to current issues – Tufts’ banana distributor, Costa Fruit and Produce, is considering switching from Turbana to the Rainforest Alliance-certified Chiquita.

“Rainforest Alliance’s focus has been on promoting biodiversity and sustainable farming,” said Stratton.  “But unlike the Fairtrade certification, there’s less emphasis on workers’ rights, the requirements are less rigorous, and their process is more vague.  So it’s not really clear which way is better.”

Matt Ryan, A15, who attended the event in DeWick, said it was very help to learn in depth about the lifecycle of bananas.

“I eat a banana every day,” he said, “So this is all really interesting to know.”

Heather Brewster, A16, part of the Tufts Sustainability Collective, added that she generally avoids the fruit. “There’s so much energy waste in the transport.  I prefer to eat local,” she said.

Originally published November 2012