Five billion dollars.
But the health, social and environmental cost of most campus dining may be even higher than the monetary one, with the vast majority of that sum going to agribusinesses and junk food makers. What is needed, some say, is an influx of food to campuses that takes into account a concern for producers, consumers, communities, and the Earth.
“The issue is so potent because when students arrive on campus, especially freshmen, you’re forced to eat their meal plan,” says David Schwartz, cofounder and campaign director of the Real Food Campaign, a nationwide movement that works with young people to transform the food system. “We see it as a total right that students should have a say of what we put in our bodies.”
The primary goal of the Real Food Campaign (which is a program of Boston-based The Food Project) is to get colleges and universities to shift $1 billion nationally—just 20 percent of the total spending—from industrial food systems to “local/community-based, fair, ecologically sound and humane food sources”—what it calls “real food”—by 2020.
Students, organizers say, provide the fuel and passion for the movement. When school starts this fall, the campaign will have a presence on 363 campuses in 41 states. Student groups there work together to educate their dining service officials on the advantages of serving real food and ask them to commit in writing to transforming their purchasing practices. While just one school has signed the commitment thus far—Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Ind.—there is great energy and passion among students to transform their campus food systems. Last winter, “summits” in each of the campaign’s six regions drew 1,400 students.
Alexandra Villegas knew the state of California already requires colleges and universities to work toward procuring 20 percent "real food" by 2020, so she raised the standard on her campus. As a senior at the University of California Santa Cruz, Villegas successfully lobbied her dining director and administrators to commit to procuring 40 percent real food by 2020. The school's chancellor signed the commitment in February.
She also led an effort to start Farm Fridays, where each Friday a different dining hall would serve an all-local lunch to students. The 22-year-old, who graduated from UCSC in June, now begins a post organizing other student workers on campuses across California.
"I'm really excited to be working with the Real Food Campaign and hopefully see what happened on the UCSC campus happen on campuses all over the state," she says.
While many schools say they offer fresh, sustainable options to their students, Schwartz says too many dining departments engage in what he calls “greenwashing”—exaggerating their sustainability practices on their websites and in campus brochures.
So, what does a “real food campus” look like?
It probably looks a lot like Sterling College. For one, the liberal arts college in Craftsbury Common, Vt., educates students in environmental stewardship and boasts of its strong programs in agriculture and food systems. Sterling doesn’t use a food-service operator; instead, in-house chefs work alongside students to prepare fresh, seasonal, local meals. There’s a farm on campus where a large portion of its food is grown. The rest comes from local producers.
The “practice what you teach” food philosophy has taken root in many of Sterling’s students. In 2010, several undergraduate students turned some collective inspiration from a sustainable agriculture class into an idea to start their own CSA, which for a time served both fellow students and the local community.
OK, so most campuses aren’t going to get from Aramark-run dining halls to grow-your-own overnight. But the Real Food Campaign is asking schools to take baby steps toward fairer, more sustainable, more “real” food options on campus.
What percentage of your campus’s food is “real”?
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Steve’s story about healthy fast food was anthologized in Best Food Writing 2011. His food and general interest stories regularly appear in Edible Boston, Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe, and other places. Email Steve | @thebostonwriter