Huge Student Win in the Fight for ‘Real Food’ on Campus

In response to student demand, giant food-service provider signs unprecedented agreement.

Students on college and university campuses nationwide have been demanding their schools serve more real food in their cafeterias, so Sodexo's agreement to provide more transparency in purchasing comes as great news to many. (Photo: Real Food Challenge)

Steve Holt is a regular contributor to TakePart. He writes about food for Edible Boston, Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe, and other publications.

Last year we told you about a student-led, nationwide movement on college campuses called the Real Food Challenge, which works to get their schools to shift 20 percent of their food spending toward local and sustainable food systems. Currently, the vast majority of the $5 billion spent annually on campus food goes to large, industrial food companies.

Today Real Food Challenge announced an enormous victory in its efforts. One of the nation's largest campus food-service providers, Sodexo, has entered into an agreement with the organization to open up its books and adhere to what a spokesman calls a "rigorous and comprehensive set of standards" for its food purchasing. On all 600 Sodexo-contracted college campuses and in 100 high school cafeterias, the $20 billion company will work with student leaders to evaluate the food it is serving using four key criteria: local and community-based, fair, ecologically sound, and humane. They will do so using the Real Food Calculator, an assessment tool developed by Real Food Challenge student researchers and associated food experts.

"We are happy to work with Sodexo to increase transparency and accountability in our food system," Anim Steel, Executive Director of Real Food Challenge, said in a statement. "Building a truly just and sustainable food system requires a real respect for the rights and needs of this younger generation and a real commitment to transparency all along the supply chain—from seed to plate. Together, we can lead the food industry away from a model driven exclusively by profit, secrecy and the factory farm, and towards a one based on respect for human rights, the environment, and the health of our children for generations to come."

Student-driven Real Food Challenge has a presence on 363 campuses in 41 states, where young people are educating dining service officials on the advantages of serving real food and asking them to commit in writing to transforming their purchasing practices. Before Thursday's announcement, ten schools had signed on to the challenge. Macalester College, Oberlin College and University of Vermont all signed on in the past year.

By using the Real Food Calculator standards, Sodexo—the world's second-largest food-service company—aligns itself with what Real Food Challenge calls the most progressive metric for institutional food service and sets a high bar for other food-service providers on campuses nationwide. The company's participation is also a sign that activism by food-conscious college students is working.

"It's amazing to think, that just two years ago, this type of student activism might've been just been a blip on Sodexo's radar," David Schwartz, campaign director of the Real Food Challenge, tells TakePart. "But now it's being seen as the true positive force for change that it is!"

One of these student activists is Alexandra Villegas, who successfully lobbied the dining director at University of California, Santa Cruz to commit to procuring 40 percent "real food" by 2020—a notable precursor to the Sodexo agreement. Villegas, who now works full-time with student food activists, also started Farm Fridays at UCSC, where at the end of each week a different dining hall would serve an all-local lunch to students.

What's next for Sodexo? Sodexo managers will begin a collaborative process with student leaders, who will collect and analyze purchasing data using the Real Food Calculator's web-based application and tracking tool. The resulting statistic reveals which Sodexo purchases constitute "real food"—which Real Food Challenge defines as that which "truly nourishes producers, consumers, communities and the earth"and which do not. These figures, campaign officials say, will be used to help food-service managers make healthier, more local, more sustainable purchases in the future.

Which is fantastic news for students.

Do you know where your local college's food dollars are being spent?

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