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With a String of Spring Wins, No Excuse for Inaction

on May 15, 2013

This post is by David Schwartz, Campaign Director for Real Food Challenge.

Today, we are proud to announce 6 new colleges and universities that have signed on to the Real Food Campus Commitment--together shifting nearly $4 million away from an corporate-industrial model of agriculture, and towards more just and sustainable alternatives.
 
These real food pioneers are: Massachusetts’ Clark University and UMass Amherst, Vermont’s Lyndon State College and Sterling College, Warren Wilson College in North Carolina, and Cornell College in Iowa. 
 
If there’s one thing these incredible victories tell us, it is this: inaction is no longer acceptable.  We can no longer deny the urgent problems plaguing our food system.  And, with an abundance of solutions before us, there is no excuse for inaction. 
 
The statistics don’t lie: From the field to the cafeteria serving line, 7 of the 10 lowest-paying jobs in America are in the food system.  Rather than being an engine of wealth-creation, recent studies show that the food industry is instead a major driver of both poverty and racial inequity. Meanwhile, our food system is also fueling climate change and an epidemic of diet-related disease.
 
Fortunately, there’s another way -- and a growing number of colleges and universities are heeding the moral and economic imperative to support this new vision for a real food system.  In California, a coop of immigrant organic farmers is growing, with over $3 million in sales, thanks to the support of UC Santa Cruz, Stanford and Berkeley.  In Florida, over two decades of farmworker organizing--with important support from students and university cafeteria contractors is leading to increased wages and improved working conditions in the state’s tomato fields.
 
Colleges and universities stand at this crossroads – and must ask themselves these tough questions: Do we support fair food or exploitation?  Real nourishment or empty calories?  Environmental degradation or restoration?  With over $5 billion in combined food purchases annually, these choices cannot be avoided.
 
Thanks to the determined work of countless student activists, a powerful cohort of higher education leaders have joined together to lead their peers towards this new ‘real food’ vision. These include UMass Amherst Chancellor Subbaswamy, who oversees the 2nd largest food service operation in the nation and Cornell College President Jonathan Brand, who is making a new name for the real food revolution in Iowa, a state better known for it’s industrial corn and soy production.
 
It’s clear that these savvy leaders are readily responding to the growing chorus of students, faculty, alumni, donors, community partners and prospective students.  Where previously calls for ‘real food’ might have been isolated to a few small groups -- support for this new approach to food and agriculture has now become a major priority for these diverse constituents.  As one prominent university trustee recently commented: “I’m convinced it’s not a question of if, but when.”
 
We must ask ourselves then: will we, as consumers, join together to make real change happen?  Can we afford to wait? 
 
Already, thousands of young people working their way through college – attending Land Grant schools, Historically Black Colleges, Ivy League institutions and small liberal arts schools – have given their answer.
 
Molly Abbattista was one such leader who chose to take action.  Growing up in inner-city Denver, agriculture was far from her radar.  When she arrived at Cornell College in rural Mount Vernon, Iowa as a Political Science major, however, she quickly developed an intense interest in the Farm Bill and local agricultural policy.  Through this research, and through volunteering with local farmers, she became invested in the struggles of small growers as they searched for markets amidst a sea of industrial corn and soy. She got involved with her school's Environmental Club, joining a grassroots campaign to switch dining service providers. This past year, as the president of that club, Molly has spearheaded Cornell's real food campaign, and just this weekend, the announcement was made--as part of Commencement weekend—that Cornell’s is signing the Real Food Campus Commitment!
 
Halfway across the country, another Molly - Molly Bajgot - enrolled in UMass Amherst’s agriculture program, with a dream of pursuing a career in sustainable farming.  She immediately fell in with a talented group of young women who led the UMass Food Advocates. With strong allies in the university dining office, these student Advocates developed a proposal for a multi-million dollar university commitment to local farms and fair food businesses. After countless petition signatures and meetings with administrators, the team’s campaign culminated in Chancellor Subbaswamy himself signing the Real Food Campus Commitment.
 
Similar stories could be told about the leaders behind each of this spring’s Commitment signatories:
  • Clark University – where for more than four years students in Food Truth have been pushing for university support for more just and sustainable food on campus and beyond.
  • Sterling College – a small rural school, which has achieved perhaps one of the highest percentages of real food anywhere in the country: more than 70% of all the food on campus!
  • Lyndon State College – where students developed their real food proposal and campaign through a very hands-on class about sustainable food production.
  • Warren Wilson College – the first college in the south to sign, and one where students pushed for the university to sign at 40% real food.

Today, amidst a growing food justice movement, led by farmworkers, family farm defendersand urban innovators, we believe students have critical role to play.   For, when pushed to act on their values, colleges and universities can be powerful economic drivers, thought leaders and stewards of new generations of conscious citizens.  And, as with past movements, the food justice transformation in higher education will only happen when students and their allies push universities to shift resources--and indeed the balance of power--away from exploitative and ecologically destructive food systems and towards those that truly nourish producers, consumers, communities and the earth.

 
Today, as we announce this recent string of successes, we celebrate the incredible leaders who are doing just that.
 

 
Of course, the fight for real food is far from over.  Here are a few more local campaigns to watch this spring and next fall.  Onward!
 
Western Washington University – Just last week, 92% of students voted in favor of the Real Food Campus Commitment in a student referendum.  It looks like the president himself might be an ally here.  But, there’s a tough track record here -- in past few years since Aramark took over food service at Western, the company sued a student to protect their secrecy and refused to release the results of their contract-mandated Real Food Calculator Assessments.
 
Williams College – Pressure is mounting at this small liberal arts college.  Satisfied with a small, existing local foods program, Williams' President Falk has yet to step up and join the national consensus--choosing instead to go it alone.  With a flurry of recent articles, students haven’t given up.  Recently, Williams alumni, including Real Food Challenge Executive Director Anim Steel himself, have weighed in to support students’ proposal.
 

Earlham College – This Quaker school values decentralized decision-making and ‘consensus’ processes, so committed student activists have sought to build just that sort of overwhelming support for real food from their peers and allies.  Thus far, they've gained support from the student government, Sustainability Advisory Committee, prominent faculty, and, in according to school-wide vote, the student body.  Still, President Dawson has refused to join this campus consensus, and the Earlham crew is still pushing for their real food proposal to be adopted by Dawson and the board of trustees.
 
These students aren’t giving up, and we can’t either -- the stakes are just too high.