Last year, a bunch of students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill got tired of the industrial dreck served up in the cafeteria. They discovered that the landscape around them was producing some amazing, chemical-free meat and produce and set about figuring out how to get some in school dining halls.

Photo: iStockphoto

Photo: iStockphoto

Led by seniors Sally Lee and David Hamilton, they declared themselves FLO Food (FLO = fair, local, organic), and began negotiating with Campus Dining Services in earnest. CDS took them seriously and negotiated respectfully, but a key gap in understanding between the two groups quickly emerged.

CDS, it turned out, had listed Smithfield Foods — the world’s largest hog grower and pork packer — as a “sustainable” company. That’s because Smithfield runs the globe’s largest hog-processing plant — 32,000 hogs meet their end there daily — in Tar Heel, N.C., 110 miles away. CDC defined any producer within 150 miles as “sustainable.”

The students found out that CDS was spending $20,000 per month on Smithfield products. That inspired the FLO students to research exactly what sort of company was benefiting from their food dollars, giving rise to an extraordinary event on campus March 5 called “People, Power, and Pork.”

Honestly, it was the most inspiring public event I’ve attended in years.

The event took place on a warm evening on the main quad of UNC’s leafy, attractive campus. It opened with a free barbecue, sponsored by the Slow Food’s Triangle convivium.

The barbecue featured a hog raised by Cane Creek Farm, a small farm located just outside of Chapel Hill specializing in pasture-based pork, chicken, and beef. I didn’t manage to push ahead of hundreds of hungry college students before the ‘cue ran out, but I know from experience that Cane Creek produces spectacular pork.

But this was no local-food-rocks, let’s-feel-good-about-ourselves event. After dinner, the gathering moved to a large classroom indoors, where the FLO-Fooders had managed to bring together players in Smithfield’s global hog chain that the company would prefer remain invisible: workers from the Tar Heel plant, and people who live in Duplin County, a predominately African-American area where Smithfield and its suppliers raise nearly 2.2 million hogs each year.

(Last year, I profiled Iowa’s most hog-intensive county, Hardin, home to comparatively modest 1 million confined hogs. It was heartbreaking and disgusting to experience the effect of such concentration on the landscape, the air, and people’s lives.)

Duplin resident Devon Hall testified to the horror of living close to knock-you-over stench and toxic hog waste. Smithfield workers including Marvin Steele told of the pork giant’s abysmal disregard for worker safety and ruthless, ongoing union-busting effort.

While these speakers delivered devastating indictments against industrial meat production, two others offered a different vision for pork: Eliza MacClean, owner-farmer of above-mentioned Cane Creek Farm; and Jennifer Curtis, of NC Choices, a group trying to break down market obstacles to pastured hog production in an area dominated by Smithfield.

Several hundred students packed the hall, engaged and ready to take action.

The event left me energized to dig deep into these stories — hope and resistance amid the naked brutalities of industrial agriculture. I salute FLO Food for delivering such an inspiring, informative presentation.