U.S. colleges and universities spend at least $5 billion a year on food. So, what—and where—they buy matters. If institutions made a collective choice to spend differently, it could have a wide impact on the food system, especially in communities around large campuses.
The Real Food Challenge is a growing student-led campaign that seeks to do just that. By getting administrators to source at least 20% of food from "real" sources, it hopes to gradually change how higher education eats. So far, about 10 colleges have signed up, with another 10 due this spring. Campaign director David Schwartz expects the total amount committed to pass $50 million soon.
RFC signers include the University of California, Santa Cruz, the University of Vermont, and Macalester College. A further 31 have completed "Real Food Calculator pilots"—meaning they’ve opened their books to students to assess how they are spending their dollars. More than 100 campuses now have RFC campaigns, and many more have held events.
"The first thing is to have a level of transparency. Students are often forced to eat meal-plans and don’t have control over what they are putting in their bodies for two, three, four years," Schwartz says. "Once you’ve got the data, then you can motivate the university."
"Real food" covers four categories: local, fair, sustainable, and humane. If the item fits any of these criteria—say, it’s grown in a local farm—it qualifies. But if it fails any of the tests—for example, it’s produced in a way that’s harmful to animals—it’s struck off.
Budgets range from a small liberal arts college that might spend $600,000 a year, to a major state institution like the University of Seattle in Washington, which has an annual food spend approaching $10 million.
Schwartz doesn’t accept that "real" food is more expensive, though he accepts that the purchasing process may be more complicated for administrators. "It is going to be more complicated. But it’s a priority for our generation. It is unacceptable for a school that preaches values about making the world better to then feed their students unhealthy food that comes from places where those values are not upheld," he says.
He says the issues that motivate students depend on who is driving the campaign on campus, and in some cases, where the college or university is based. For example, one group of students in Florida campaigns for better treatment of local field-workers who work in "abhorrent conditions." Another, at the University of Cincinnati, is led by trainee nutritionists "who are appalled by the state of our health."
"In some cases, in these small towns or rural communities," says Schwartz, "the university can be such a powerful economic driver, if they unhook themselves from just purchasing large commodities off the truck, and actually develop a new strategy where they actually build relationships with new vendors and local farmers."