What is real food? What does it even mean to be organic, local, ecologically sound, and humanely raised? Look around your campus dining hall, the cafeteria in your workplace, or the food distributors in your community. Do people have access to nourishing food that’s produced in sustainable ways? More often than not, the answer is no. Real Food Challenge is working to change this through education and the purchasing power of colleges and universities.
I suppose it may be helpful to first give a little background on what Real Food Challenge (RFC) is and what this means at my university. RFC is a national campaign to shift $1 billion of the $5 billion college/university food purchasing industry to “real food,” meaning local, ecologically sound, fair trade, and humanely raised. This is a big deal. The University of Massachusetts Amherst signed on to the Real Food Campus Commitment last May, which means that our Chancellor has agreed to transition to 20% real food on campus by the year 2020, and believe me, we are well on our way. We are a school that spends $25 million a year on food through a self-operated system and is ranked the #3 best campus dining in the country. By 2020 we will have shifted at least $5 million a year towards real food. Wow. We are part of a national movement that is changing the trajectory of American agriculture.
I found out about Real Food Challenge after I met fellow Green Girl Julia Whitten at TTG’s Green U in 2012, as well as Raychel Santo and Ruthie Burrows. I learned about the amazing work happening around RFC at their schools (University of Alabama and Johns Hopkins) and watched them attend the summit last year at JHU. I remember looking at their pictures and thinking that this was an incredibly powerful movement and that I wanted to get involved with the campaign at UMASS as soon as I possibly could.
So what does this all mean? Well, UMASS Amherst is the largest school to have signed this campus commitment and our team is established, growing, and continuously learning. We have a food system working team, outreach & events working group, a student facilited internship that is running the Real Food Calculator, and a core team. Not to mention we have an Auxiliary Services that is able and willing to help with this campaign. It also means that not even two months into my first year of college I was boarding a flight to Minnesota to attend the Real Food Challenge National Summit, Real Food Rising.
In all honesty, I really didn’t know what to expect. I was given the opportunity to attend, along with four other members of the UMASS Real Food team and that was that. I didn’t even really have time to think about the summit until the night before when I was last minute packing. After arriving in Minneapolis and making my way over to the University of Minnesota Twin Cities where the summit was being held, I instantly felt the incredible energy coming from this movement and from every individual that was part of it. It only took a few minutes of being there for me to go from feeling like a small part of the UMASS campaign, to a crucial member of a national movement that was working towards a better future. The summit began with some far-from-boring ice breakers, where students had the opportunity to share what brought them there and what they hoped to gain from this experience. It quickly became clear that everyone had a unique and powerful story, but the commonality amongst everyone was that we were young people with a desperate desire to change the way this world works. We were gathering with the hope that through this campaign and the power of our voices and our universities, we could shape a more just world.
One of the best parts of this experience for me was becoming closer friends with the other members of UMASS RFC and realizing what our place was within this national movement. Not only did I become closer with my classmates, but I connected with students from around the country, including students from the University of Washington from whom I learned about Prop 522 and their involvement in the campaign to pass a bill that would require the mandatory labeling of genetically modified organisms. I became friends with students from New York to Indiana to Alabama and California. I feel incredibly thankful to be at a school where RFC is having such an enormous impact and I feel overwhelmingly excited to be connected to students across the nation through this network. I think one of the coolest feelings is looking around a room of young leaders and realizing that our voices are in fact powerful and we are effectively working towards a better future.
This past weekend was not only about networking with other students and attending powerful workshops on student-worker solidarity, food justice, and the future of this movement, it was about people coming together. It was about Real Food Rising.