It was a little after midnight, long after the official conference had ended and the 500-plus attendees of the 2007 Food and Society annual get-together had turned in for the night. Tim Galarneau of the California Student Sustainability Coalition; Anim Steel from the Food Project, a Boston-based food and farming nonprofit; David Schwartz from Brown University; and a few other young people were still talking. Hunched over a table in an empty meeting room at the Grand Traverse Resort in Traverse City, Michigan, the group had already been together for hours, continuing a conversation that had been going on for more than a year.
What was keeping them up so late? They were comparing notes. Each was witnessing a burgeoning student movement on college campuses to bring sustainably and fairly raised food into dining halls. From coast to coast, a similar energy and enthusiasm seemed to be bubbling up. Galarneau was seeing it in the massive effort to transform university food across California’s esteemed public university system. Schwartz was seeing it back in Providence at Brown, where students were getting increasingly vocal about finding sustainable food. And Steel, a leader in the food-justice movement, had a frontline view from the Food Project’s youth-run farm in Boston. From their unique perspectives, both sensed that students were hankering to speak up more loudly for sustainable food; they just needed an effective way to do so. Out of this ongoing conversation, the group would launch the Real Food Challenge.
The concept is simple, really. Students, some who pay as much as $100,000, or more, for four years at a private college, should have a say in what grub their schools serve–and that food should reflect shared values of fairness and sustainability. The Real Food Challenge provides an organizing tool to empower students to persuade their schools to make the move. Schools that join the challenge pledge to shift at least 20 percent of school food to “real food”–sustainably raised, grown with fairness, and from local and regional farms–by 2020.
In addition to this concrete goal, the Challenge also offers schools and student organizers a support network, resources for finding sources of real food, organizer training and a “real food calculator.” The calculator provides campuses with a mechanism for quantifying real food, for determining the percentage of real food they currently serve and assessing improvement over time.
The excitement about the Real Food Challenge, Galarneau said, is partly that it taps into students’ energy to address the global warming impact of their campuses. One strategy of student environmental activists has been to focus on persuading their schools to reduce their global warming impact through rethinking institutional energy use and turning to renewable-energy sources. One of the most successful campus-based efforts to date is the Campus Climate Challenge. The initiative has helped young people in colleges and high schools across the United States and Canada organize to campaign for–and win–100 percent clean-energy policies at their schools.