From cafeterias to farms: How students are mobilizing their universities to build a more local, just, and sustainable food system

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Michelle Stearn
Rally at The Ohio State University in support of their campaign for the Real Food Campus Commitment, Spring 2015

“Every aspect of our lives is, in a sense, a vote for the kind of world we want to live in.” writes Frances Moore Lappé in Diet for a Small Planet. In theory, making choices about what we eat should be a way for us to vote three, maybe four or five, times per day, each meal  a small vote for our ideal world cast from our very own kitchens. Right?

But the ways we have to translate our ideas about the food system we want to see into our consumer preferences can be almost as complex as Julia Child’s recipe for Beef Bourguignon. Imagine if every time you went to the ballot box, you were confronted with a series of colorful selections, shrink-wrapped in billion dollar marketing campaigns, controlled by a few multinational corporations with the ability to finagle the electoral system to their benefit, making consumer choice a moot point when it comes to voting with our dollars. How would you know which foods are contributing to the rise in global greenhouse gas emissions, and which ones are produced in factories where farmers are exploited or kept in bondage? According to Behind the Brands, a study by Oxfam International on the top ten largest global food and beverage companies, the first of many factors that unite these agribusiness behemoths is their strategies that cloak their supply chains in murky secrecy. The agribusiness sector also contributes to massive political lobbies, allowing them to continue to extract huge profits and maneuver with little regulation. These few companies essentially vet the ballot boxes before we as consumers get a chance to visit our local supermarket and “vote for the kind of world we want to live in,” as Frances Moore Lappé suggests.

So, if all the candidates running for a position on the dinner table fail to provide an adequate solution to the problems we see within the food system, what can be done to change the paradigm? A growing movement of student activists across the nation is exploring how to go beyond advocating for more responsible consumer choice; instead, they seek to restructure the food system itself in order to encourage the choice to eat better for ourselves, our communities, and our environment. In essence, they have developed “ a project that re-imagines a cafeteria tray as a tool for social change,” as Anim Steel put it in his Yes! Magazine article, “A Critical Mass for Real Food.” 

Thousands of students have united under the guise of a nation-wide campaign called the Real Food Challenge (RFC), a movement aimed at shifting $1 billion in institutional food spending to food that is sustainable, just, and local: in other words, ‘real food.’ Jon Berger, a food activist and former mid-Atlantic regional coordinator for the RFC, emphasizes the necessity of engaging with colleges to begin to restructure the supply chains that feed the population as a whole, explaining that “changing the economic and political systems of the world will require taking over and changing the institutions that make up the current system.” (Left: In Colombus Ohio, students of Ohio State University brainstorm their visions for a new food system)

As Berger notes, the lynchpin of the RFC campaign is the notion that rerouting supply chains within institutions will catalyze changes in the structure of the entire food and labor systems writ large. The sheer number of mouths to feed at each university translates into incredible purchasing power, magnifying the impact RFC activists can have if they get their schools to strategically redirect the money they currently spend on food products that don’t lead to equity or sustainability. “Our universities have massive purchasing power when it comes to the food industry,” says Caroline Unger, a student organizer at McDaniel University in Maryland. “They have the ability,” she believes, “with student pressure, to shift sourcing away from the most destructive and exploitative sources to producers that prioritize ethically produced and sustainably grown food.”  While many universities with forward thinking leadership have embraced an anchor mission that prioritizes local, fair, and sustainable purchasing without student campaigns, such organizing efforts can help generalize such commitments across the academic sector and play a key role in educating the students themselves about the power of localized procurement to intentionally shape better and more equitable economic outcomes. (Below: Students march for real food and fair food in solidarity with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, at the 2013 National RFC Summit in Baltimore, MD)


Unger and hundreds of other students are delving into the nitty gritty details of the current food system by collaborating with the purchasers at their cafeterias to scrutinize every invoice and receipt, in the hopes of discovering whether or not the food meets their criteria for sustainability and labor standards. As of this publication, according to the Real Food Calculator webpage, students have researched a total of 353,611 products across 195 institutions and reviewed $265,711,370 worth of purchases within the university supply chains—and counting! At many larger institutions, the initial portion of what they consider “real” food is often around just 3% of the total. After calculating the exact amount of ‘real’ food at their cafeteria, student organizers campaign to have their administration sign the “Real Food Agreement” to commit to increasing their purchases to at least 20% of their cafeteria food from approved sources. The students themselves are involved in every step of the process, from seeking out new vendors with whom they can establish partnerships to petitioning university administrators to sign the agreement. (Right: Administrators at Oberlin College committed to a precedent-setting 40% real food by 2020)

The ripple effects of this student organizing are being felt at industrial food giants deeply embedded in the corporate-governmental revolving door system. “Coordinated national corporate campaigning against food service companies like Sodexo and Bon Appetit have won important victories like supply chain transparency and union recognition for cafeteria workers,” said Berger. “At the local level, 35 campuses have committed over $60 million of their food procurement budgets to purchasing local, independent, sustainable and fair foods over the next five years.” This multi-year strategy, according to Berger, has helped achieve institutional change that can be scaled both within the food industry and to other issue bases.

“All around me, I see more and more students beginning to have immense interest in the food,” says Unger, citing the way food touches on a broad ranges of key issues including health (tackling obesity and diet-related illness), labor (preventing factory-worker abuse in the meat-packing industry), and the environment (sourcing organic, pesticide-free foods). "Just because you're not a farmer doesn't mean you don't play a role in changing our food system," said Fil Eden, a student activist who, while at Cornell University, worked to engage community members as young as high schoolers in bringing systemic change to the food industry.

Through intentional, strategic activism aimed at leveraging the large institutional buying power of their colleges and universities, students like those involved in the RFC are setting the stage not just for more transparency and better informed choices with every cafeteria tray, but for larger transformations in the food system as a whole.