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4 Lessons from the largest student movement you’ve never heard of

on October 30, 2012

This blog post is from David Schwartz, Campaign Director at Real Food Challenge.

Over 40,000 students took action together last week and the mainstream media hardly covered it.  Surprised?

Northeastern University's Food Day event.

You shouldn’t be.  It wasn’t an Obama rally.  And it wasn’t a revolt in the Middle East. While media pundits were fixated on which candidate scored more cheap political points, an unprecedented number of college students came together with Real Food Challenge and Food Day for an incredible national day of action. The truth that motivated us is simple: if we ever hope to jumpstart the economy, become energy independent or deal with our nation’s healthcare crisis (as the candidates claim they will), we must fix our food system first.

Why food? Why now? Student leaders will tell you:

  • If you’re concerned about energy and climate change... Our food and agriculture sectors contribute a full 33% of all greenhouse-causing gasses.
  • If you’re worried about the economy...  CNN reports that 5 out of the 7 worst paying jobs in America are in the foodservice sector.
  • If you’re worried about our health...  The Center for Disease Control predicts that the youngest generation of Americans today (us!) will live shorter lives than their parents (for the first time in American history!), because of the food they eat.

That’s why students on 286 college campuses -- from D1 schools like Duke and UNC to small liberal arts schools like Northland College -- took action, educating their communities on the dire need for a real food system, and the looming consequences of persisting in apathy.

Food Day showed us how much power and progress we’ve already generated.  It also highlights some important insights about our path forward:

1) Changing institutions will change our food economy.

University of Mississippi, '12

Oddly enough, students may have before them the fastest way to turn our food system around.  Colleges and universities spend $5 billion of food every year and feed 17 million young people.  Moreover, the higher education market consistently leads industry trends.  A change there, has powerful implications.

A shift by colleges and universities to buying local and community-based, fair, ecologically sound and humane foods—what we call ‘real food’— could catalyze a major shift in our nation’s food landscape. First, it will mean incredible new markets for tens of thousands of small farmers and food businesses.  Second, it will increase food literacy and provide healthier food options for millions of young people.  Moreover, a focus on change in college and university food purchasing has the added benefit of educating a new generation of leaders to drive the food movement in decades to come.

While Farm Bill reform languishes in Congressional gridlock, students and other university leaders are already transforming their institutions and supply chains here and now.  Similar work in hospitals and other big institutions may offer the next big step forward in making real food the norm, not the exception.

2) Real Food requires real organizing.   

When it comes to food, young people are often told the best way to make change is to 'vote' with our food dollars.  Sadly, most of us don’t have many food dollars to spend!  And even if we did, many universities force students to enroll in a mandatory meal plan.  Clearly we need a different model of social change.  We cannot expect frustrated and disorganized consumers to simply spend their way to to a new food system!  If we’re to overcome entrenched policies that support the status quo, we need to organize.

Georgia College celebrates Food Day.
That’s why, a year ago, students at Macalester College embarked on a campaign to build broad community support for real food and get their college president shift the institution’s multi-million dollar food budget to at least 30% ‘real food.’  

After attending a Real Food Challenge leadership training in 2011, Macalester students carefully laid out their goals, targets, tactics and timelines.  Over the yearlong organizing effort that followed, they gathered petition signatures from 20% of the student body, formed a 12-club advocacy coalition and met with countless administrators.  This Fall, they finally convinced their college president to sign The Real Food Campus Commitment, becoming the 8th school nationally to change campus policy and make this bold pledge of support to small farmers and socially responsible food businesses.  On Food Day, they celebrated that precedent-setting success.

As one of the student leaders from this small Midwestern school reflected: “A commitment to food justice is a commitment to people.  It’s about the farmworkers in California and the truck drivers in Nebraska and the people who serve food in [our cafeterias]...Today I am proud the be a student and a student at a school that lives it’s values.”  In the end, when students organize and win--it’s more than just students who benefit.

3) We’ve got to keep it real and tell it like it is.

At Johns Hopkins University, Food Day featured a student-organized ‘100-mile meal’--a dinner composed of ingredients sourced within 100 miles of Hopkins’ campus. With over one hundred community members in attendance, it was quite a feast!  

Aside from the marinated maple kale salad and fresh apple crisp (is your mouth watering yet?), the real highlight of the two-hour event was a six-minute film.  Dark, animated graphics unfolded on a big screen, bit by bit exposing the harsh realities of our industrial agriculture system: chemical dependence, pesticide-resistant superbugs, rampant abuse of workers, devastating soil erosion. 

When bestselling author Anna Lappé took the stage, she laid out a powerful case: we will not survive in the 21st century if we rely on the outdated model of our current industrial food system. This film was the first in her series “Food Mythbusters”--debunking the bogus claims of corporate food lobbyists and mainstream ag apologists.

The film has already spread like wildfire -- debuting at NYU, University of Minnesota Duluth and dozens of other college campuses this past week alone.  Students, more than most of us, are tapped into the latest research and science--and are very skeptical of corporate greenwashing.  

When confronted with the inflated claims made by their on-campus food service contractors, students joined with Real Food Challenge and a panel of expert advisors to develop the Real Food Calculator -- the most comprehensive tool available for defining ‘real food’ and deciphering between the multitude of existing food labels, claims and certifications. Students now use the Real Food Calculator system to track their universities’ food purchasing, producing useful data and making recommendations for changes.  

Lipscomb University's Food Day planning team!

Now, students in California are being confronted with false advertising pushed by the corporate foes of GMO labeling.  At UC San Diego and other schools throughout the state, students used Food Day to push back against the tide of lies -- educating their campus community and urging their peers to get out and vote for the upcoming GMO-labeling ballot measure.

This student movement will not tolerate the same old falsehoods and is ready to tell it like it is.  With powerful allies like Anna Lappé on our side, we’re confident we can make the case.

4) Building solidarity across traditional divides is a must.

At the University of New Hampshire, students and community members hosted their 2nd annual Month of Food Citizenship leading up to and culminating on Food Day. The month-long celebration featured a Korean Thanksgiving celebration; a info session on the plight of rural Burmese farmers; a Jewish harvest festival; and a Latino heritage dinner.  Together, students discussed the power of cultural foods and food traditions, and the impacts of the US food system abroad.

Photo petition from Northeastern University.

At Northeastern University, Food Day featured an evening discussion with a farmworker-activist from Southwest Florida, a cafeteria workers and union leader from Boston, and a local farm-to-school advocate.  In the packed room, students discussed the impacts of their university’s food choices on farmers, workers and the environment. 

One strength of this student movement, it seems, lies in these young people’s ability to reach across the divides that too often separate us.  Whether that be between the long-time employees in the cafeteria and the students they serve or between the hunger-relief advocates and local food systems champions.  Students are reaching out to farmers and food producers in their communities.  The goal -- a food system not designed by corporate executives or university board members, but by the communities most impacted by them.

Our generation is waking up to a new reality -- one of devastation and one of promise.  The façade of the 20th century -- of ‘boundless productivity,’ of chemical inputs without consequence, of faceless workers and farmers -- is breaking down.  A new vision of fair trade or community-controlled agriculture of diverse foodways is emerging in it’s wake.

While CNN may remain silent for now, spend a few minutes on Facebook and Twitter and you’ll witness a vibrant conversation--the tip of an iceberg.  A movement is brewing on college campuses about the meaning of food in America.  They have much to teach us, and deserve our support.

Over 40,000 students. 286 campuses. 46 states. One movement.  Find out more at