The Real Food Summit: A Campus Movement Takes Shape

By Adam Brock
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For progressive college students this school year, it’s all about food. In dorm rooms from San Francisco to Vermont, jars of homemade Kombucha are appearing next to textbooks on the windowsill, and the weekly potluck is fast becoming the new dance party. But even as sustainable food becomes one of the flagship causes of the regeneration, there’s a glaring disparity between what students are buying (or dumpstering) themselves, and what they’re able to get on the meal plan. For decades, most colleges and universities have fed their students with the help of corporate food service providers like Aramark, Chartwells, and Sodexho, which in turn source the majority of their ingredients from factory farms – the icons of unsustainable food.

One thing’s for certain: campus dining won’t go green overnight. Because of the numerous agents involved – producers, distributors, food service providers, and campus administrations – transforming the way a college gets its food is an enormously complex undertaking. The last few years have seen some encouraging first steps towards building sustainable campus food systems, with over 300 schools setting up limited farm-to-college programs. But to take the movement beyond the fringe, colleges will need to start working together to demand changes in the structure of food production and distribution.

Thanks to last weekend’s Real Food Summit at Yale, that collaborative effort is up and running. The summit brought together 175 student leaders from nearly 50 Northeastern colleges and universities with the aim of coordinating the dozens of sustainable food initiatives in the region into a cohesive framework. Throughout the weekend, participants built a working knowledge of the details of food service contracts, learned about best practices from other schools, and shared ideas and strategies for how to begin the battle for “Real Food” on campus.

Within the first few hours of the summit, it became clear that one of the most difficult challenges to sourcing large quantities of local food is distribution. Thanks to sophisticated national supply chains, food service providers are used to planning menus months in advance and getting reliable quantities of food sourced from all over the country. In one of the Saturday panels, John Turrene, a former Aramark chef and consultant on sustainable campus food systems, underscored that dining programs must be willing to change this mindset to adapt to seasonal menus and limited ingredients. Meanwhile, local producers need to form networks to help make supplies a little bit more secure.

Another critical issue is accountability. Anim Steel, director of national programs for Boston’s Food Project, led a brainstorming session of how to track and quantify progress in sourcing Real Food, suggesting that purchases be plotted on a graph with scales of “who” (fair trade, local) and “how” (organic, humane). Kelley Erwin of the Massachusetts Farm to School Project spoke to the need for ensuring “product integrity”: making sure that the food being labeled as local was actually grown and processed locally. Even with a proper tracking system in place, she warned, it’s likely that campus groups will need to perform periodic checks of boxes and invoices, because food service providers get volume discounts that give them a financial incentive to stick with national distributors.

Perhaps the most important outcome of the weekend was the genesis of the Real Food Challenge, a national ten-year framework to divert 20% of the $4 billion in annual campus food purchases to local, sustainable and fair trade options. The Challenge was drafted by the summit’s organizers and collaboratively edited throughout the weekend, with a national launch slated for September 2008.

With an unprecedented confluence of student energy and professional input, The Real Food Summit marked a turning point in the movement for sustainable campus dining. Of course, it was merely a call to arms: for each campus, reforming their food system will be a long and difficult process. But with the knowledge gained and connections formed over the weekend, it looks like the dream of sustainable food on campus is well on its way to becoming real.

Photo Credit: flickr/lookoutbelow

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