Historic Sustainability and Food Practices at MSU

As I continue to work on the sustainability project, I will be sharing excerpts from the draft that I am writing. Last week I came across a very helpful bound volume detailing receipts for food services from 1864-1874. Dr. Manly Miles kept a ledger of all prices paid for food produced on campus, which allows us to examine how costs and demand changed over this ten year period. Each customer (often, the names of notable faculty members appear!) order was recorded and end of the year costs of the college were declared in these volumes. I am still reading through the script handwriting, which is at times a slow procedure, but I am interested to see how the Civil War impacted the sale of foods on campus.

Below is a portion of the manuscript I am writing on campus sustainability in the past. One section of the paper deals with food and agriculture, so in light of my recent discovery of Dr. Miles ledger, I have decided to share that part of the paper this week:

Serving food at the Union Cafeteria, 1941, via MSU Archives and Historical Records

In 1883, dining clubs were developed to more efficiently feed the growing campus community. These clubs allowed students to pool boarding fees and collectively purchase and prepare food, a portion of which was sourced from the campus farms. During large conferences such as the annual Michigan Farmers’ Institutes, the dining clubs would accomodate campus visitors. Dining clubs continued in Period 3 (1900-1925), with advertisements in the MAC Record demonstrating that at least some meat was beginning to be sourced from local off-campus butchers. Advertisements around the turn of the century also indicate that local eateries were established as a result of a growing student population. Period 3 saw an increase in university extension work with outreach focusing on gardening and food sustainability at the household level.

In a pamphlet for the Michigan Farmers’ Institute meeting of 1910, it is noted that meals could be procured for 25 cents each at the college boarding clubs. Two restaurants supplied food for visitors as well, one of which, called Ye College Inn, was in the basement of Abbot Hall. By 1923, the annual pamphlet for attendees of the Institute noted that meals were widely available on campus at the Women’s Building, Dairy Building, and the Armory, presumably in response to increasing student enrollment. Food service on campus appeared to expand rapidly in the third and fourth periods and by 1951, the union cafeteria was serving meals for one dollar each.

During Period 4 (1925-1955), both the Depression and World War II dramatically affected student life on campus. Many struggled economically with the costs of college and moved off campus to rent inexpensive rooms in town. During these difficult times, MSU faculty and administration encouraged victory gardening. This return to campus-based food sustainability benefitted students who were able to purchase fresh, local foods for as little as $2/week (approximately $33/week today). In 1936, the university began to buy houses intended as co-ops where students could live, budget, and cook together. Historical photographs from this time period show university officials biking to work, clearly promoting fuel conservation during wartime.

In a letter dated May 20, 1929, Professor EL Anthony stated that during his term at the college (1921-1928), there was a general agricultural depression though the dairy industry did not suffer as greatly as livestock and grains production. Anthony noted that prior to 1925, the dairymen in Michigan had produced all products required by state consumers. Additionally, a number of dairy products were exported out of the state, especially butter. After 1925, the demands of the consumers surpassed the dairy production operations in Michigan and it became necessary to import dairy products.


Author: Amy Michael

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