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Real Food Challenge: Student Activists Help Campuses Eat Smarter

Real Food Challenge: Student Activists Help Campuses Eat Smarter

December 22, 2015 |

Real Food Challenge at San Francisco State University, Courtesy of Real Food Challenge.

Real Food Challenge at San Francisco State University. Courtesy of Real Food Challenge.

Institutional food systems are typically a tough nut for food activists to crack, relying as they do on economies of scale and mass logistics. But the growing movement toward real, sustainable eating has a natural ally in hungry, well-informed college students – and ever since 2008, the Real Food Challenge organization has helped them speak with one voice for change.

The challenge “leverages the power of youth and universities to create a healthy, fair and green food system,” according to the organization’s mission statement. 

To that end, the Real Food Generation organization – founded by Ghanian-born Harvard Kennedy School grad Anim Steel – provides coordination, support and tools to campus organizations that are working toward change.

Their goal is to shift over $1 billion of university purchasing power across the nation in the direction of “real food”—defined as food that is “local/community-based, fair, ecologically sound and humane” in its sourcing – by 2020.

So far, they’re active on over 180 campuses, with $60 million in purchasing pledges lined up, including major public universities in several states.

“To be honest, we don’t do much publicity,” says campaign coordinator David Schwartz. “Word is out. We get calls from young people all over the country every week. They hate not having a choice at the dining hall. Meal plan policies are a mess in a lot of places; schools use them to fund other things, and secret kickbacks happen between food suppliers and purchasers.”

To aid activist students in making their case to administrations, RFC provides the Real Food Calculator, a purchasing assessment tool that translates research into data that students can use to help make the case.

“Students take ownership and do a lot of the work, and there’s a lot of work involved,” says Schwartz. “It’s a matter of going over invoices line by line with the purchasing staff.”

When a campus signs up for the challenge, students approach food service professionals and form a food working group. That challenging part is just beginning. But the cause is a popular one, says Schwartz, and students often gain traction quickly.

“There are people who care at all levels, in all the different roles – some who work in food service, some faculty and administrators, parents, and folks in the community have a passion about this,” Schwartz says. “There is a lot of interest, but there is resistance too. These are systems that have been built over the last 50 years with a very different purpose – profit and mass consumption. Often, food service contractors are aligned with international processors and vendors.”

The folks at Real Food Challenge provides training, support and guidance to the students as they strive to impact the system. Their efforts are making news from California, where the entire state university system has signed on, to Maine, where activists succeeded in getting sustainable sourcing written into a food service request for proposals, clearing the way for the Maine Farm and Sea Cooperative to compete with food service giant Aramark.

“Young people know that they can’t wait for things to change on their own at the level of college presidents and Fortune 500 CEOs. Not if we want to accomplish goals like keeping smaller farms viable and bringing migrant workers out of the shadows,” says Schwartz. “But once you have a working group together, and they rewrite the food policies for an institution, even the big companies involved have to comply.”

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