Occidental Signs the Real Food Challenge Commitment
President Veitch’s decision this October to sign on to the national Real Food Challenge Commitment is a step Campus Dining has been preparing to take for over 6 years. Since 2008, when Campus Dining’s first Student Sustainability Intern suggested that Real Food Challenge (RFC) metrics could be used to assess existing procurement, four successive student interns have used the guidelines to assess purchases, and provide recommendations on improvements. This past fiscal year, using the stringent, comprehensive, updated Real Food Guide released for 2013/2014, Oxy’s Own Dining Services came in at 15% Real Food. Since that puts us well on our way to the RFC’s goal of 20% by 2020, we decided to go above and beyond the call of duty for our commitment: 30% Real Food by 2020, with some additional challenging benchmarks (*link to our RFC page*) for certain focus categories.
Overall, we feel the 30% mark is readily achievable; supply lines are rapidly catching up with demand, and practices of sustainable sourcing have become an integral part of our procurement flow – we always examine our sustainable options first. Yet, despite a well-practiced team, and a market rapidly rising to meet consumer demand, there are certainly still challenges on the road ahead.
For instance, take our commitment to 50% Real Seafood: there are multiple factors that will influence our progress, including support from marine stewardship organizations, progress with supply lines, and education and outreach to Oxy’s community. We need help sourcing seafood that meets RFC guidelines, but we also need to get students, faculty, and staff eating and enjoying more than just the old standbys of salmon and shrimp, which have seasonally limited sustainable options. When, as has happened in the past, the sustainable alternatives we offer such as catfish, trout, or halibut fail to compete with conventional options and also generate customer complaints, we are hesitant to serve them again; our customers influence the menu with their purchases every day!
Another challenge is produce. While we are fortunate to be in California, and buying local is relatively easy, many farms are too large to meet RFC criteria by location alone. However, even huge farms are realizing the value of organic to consumers, and are setting aside land for more sustainable farming. We hope to meet 50% Real Produce by sourcing from as many small farms as possible, and topping off with organic products regardless of the size of the producer.
Sourcing humane and ecologically sound animal products is also far more complicated than it would seem, and has proved an area where production is still struggling to meet consumer demand. We have found that purchasing sustainable or humane animal products is often unrealistic, partly because of a prohibitive price point, but also because there often simply isn’t enough quantity on the market, regardless of price, even just on the scale required for our small campus population. Americans have become used to cheap, plentiful sources of animal protein, which is only possible because these animals are raised in enormous feedlots designed only for efficiency. The cost differences - both ethically and monetarily - between conventional and sustainable animal products, are significant to say the least, but we truly believe it is worth the extra effort. Indeed, as we move forward with our Real Food Challenge Commitment, it will be important for students, staff, and faculty to understand that sometimes plate prices will have to go up in order to offer that sustainable option. If anyone doubts whether it is worth the difference, they need only read up on factory farms.
This is a commitment to becoming a catalyst that will help change the world, impacting those animals, workers, and environments throughout the food chain. In the immediate sense, the Commitment does give extra momentum to our efforts to purchase ecologically and socially sustainable food. But, while some may consider these procurement drives to be a "feel-good" effort, they actually represent an attempt to address serious real world problems facing us right now, from every corner of the nation; from factory farms rampant with antibiotic resistant bacteria, to forced labor in fields across the globe, to heavy metals found in conventional produce, to environmental degradation (and new super-weeds) caused by overuse of pesticides. It isn't just a Real Food Commitment; this is a commitment to real social and environmental health, now and 100 years in the future, for a better world that is deeply and intricately connected by the food we eat.
And when institutions from across the nation come together around the RFC to choose the higher road, big changes can happen. For many small family farms, even having a single small institution like Oxy as a consistent customer could be the difference between bankruptcy and the ability to plant again next year. Moreover, as the RFC campaign continues to spread nationally, it will be more than just a few small farms that enjoy the positive impact; the whole food system, from farm laborers, to single operator distributors, to local bakeries, could once again have a chance at facing down monoliths like Tyson Chicken, Wal-Mart, and other corporations that are the product and causation of a society addicted to cheap, homogeneous food.
Finally, local and organic food are outright healthier options (long shipping, storing, and display times decay vitamin content immensely, and organic vegetables were recently proven in a comprehensive review to contain higher amounts of antioxidants, and lower amounts of heavy metals). Perhaps even more important is the fact that these fresh, local, sustainable ingredients just plain taste better. The average student might not notice their extra dose of vitamin A and C from a carefully handled local heirloom tomato, but anyone can notice the difference in taste between that fresh local option, and the Florida tomato that was picked green, shipped 3,000 miles, ripened with ethylene gas, and tastes startlingly like cardboard.
Crucially, our entire team is committed to this effort. Chef Meesh arrived at Oxy last year with a desire to help us return to a culture that eats seasonally and mindfully – but we can’t accomplish this without the campus community; we hope the commitment to the Real Food Challenge will serve as a reminder to Oxy that you vote with your dollars every day, and food is no exception. We’ll provide you with options and information about those options, and we ask you to make educated choices that begin to help us change the world. College campuses and student-driven initiatives are famous as hotbeds of social and progressive change, and the Good Food Revolution is no exception. Congratulations Occidental, on becoming the newest signatory to the Real Food Challenge Campus Commitment!
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