Now Serving Real Food: University of Utah Marks Milestone Victory for Student Organizers

From by Emily Nink
Now Serving Real Food: University of Utah Marks Milestone Victory for Student Organizers

Real Food Challenge (RFC) student organizers just scored their latest campaign win at the University of Utah, securing a purchasing commitment to twenty percent “real food” –defined as local, fair, humane, and ecologically sound—by 2020. Although the university dining program was already purchasing local foods, serving seasonal produce, and composting food waste, the new commitment will raise the stakes by implementing a food systems working group to reach the quantitative purchasing goal.

Dining purchasing is assessed using the student-developed Real Food Calculator, a tool that tracks institutional purchasing over time using comprehensive and rigorous criteria; University of Utah was at 11 percent “real food” at the time of the last assessment, so it will need to double its food sustainability efforts over the next five years. Students at 179 institutions have used the calculator to assess more than US$200 million of college dining purchases.

According to RFC Regional Field Organizer Breanne Flynn, the University of Utah has funded “many students to do work in regards to sustainability as well as supported RFC to come to campus. In fact, momentum for this campaign began just this past September with a campus visit!” The campus already featured edible gardens and hosted an annual farmers’ market. The University of Utah is the first of the PAC 12 to sign the commitment, and the largest of the RFC signatories so far, enrolling more than 30,000 students last year. Flynn says she hopes to see “more of the PAC 12 schools (namely University of Washington and perhaps Oregon State and the University of Oregon) follow suit!”

Others expect the victory at Utah to create even broader pressure for other schools nationwide. Student organizer Erin Olschewski, vice president of the Utah chapter of RFC, hopes that the “University of Utah’s commitment to purchasing significantly more real foods will help lead the way for other universities with Chartwells contracts to sign Real Food commitments.” The only other signatory to the commitment with a Chartwells contract is Bard College in New York, but students at The New School in New York and at Northeastern University in Boston are also pursuing campaigns with Chartwells, a subsidiary of the larger Compass Group. Flynn calls the Utah victory a “huge piece in negotiating with that corporation.”

Other food companies that dominate college and university dining include Aramark, Sodexo, and Bon Appétit Management Company, another subsidiary of Compass Group; Sodexo has taken the lead on working with RFC to improve transparency and collaboration. Many of the other signatories to the campus commitment are self-op, meaning that the college or university does not contract with an outside food service provider. RFC campaign materials point out that the largest companies, which claim ninety percent of revenue annually, dominate the $5 billion industry of college food service.

While the University of Utah is the 30th institution to commit on its own, it actually represents the 53rd institutional commitment won by RFC. Last May, RFC organizers pushed for a statewide food sustainability policy from the California State University Board of Trustees that will shift more than US$25 million to real food by 2020. According to RFC Northeast Coordinator Estefanía Narváez, “similar efforts like the CSU campaign are happening for the U-Maine school system (six schools), in the Midwest around the Big 10 schools, Boston, and the Pioneer Valley five-school consortium.” By designing system-wide policies, RFC organizers are hoping to scale up the existing commitment to impact more colleges and universities as the 2020 deadline approaches, without watering down their rigorous standards.

The Utah victory comes at a strategic time for the national campaign; RFC students are in the final stretch of the unite4good competition, hoping to win grant money to support campus visits, organizing retreats, and research, all aimed at achieving the national goal of twenty percent real food by 2020. 

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