Are California State Universities Buying Real Food?

Rosie Linares, March 1, 2019

The California State University Sustainable Food Service Policy was approved in May of 2014 and established a goal of 20% sustainable food procurement by the year 2020 on all CSU campuses. Since then little has been done to provide comprehensive evaluation of where the CSU system is at in reaching the policy goals.  Students and alumni from CSU campuses, with the support of Real Food Challenge, have taken their own initiative to provide a snapshot of CSU campuses successes and recommendations for improvement in Tracking and Reporting Sustainable Food Sourcing in the CSUs.

This policy was pushed by students from the CSU campuses during the systemwide update of the CSU Sustainability Policy in 2013 who advocated for through letters, petitions, and public comments  at board meetings held by the CSU Board of Trustees, all while pushing efforts to increase the amount of Real Food purchasing on their own campuses. Their efforts for the inclusion of Real Food in the CSU Sustainability Policy were recognized by the CSU Board of Trustees and a section regarding Real Food was written into the updated policy.

What is the purpose of this report? 

Tracking and Reporting Sustainable Food Sourcing in the CSUs examines statewide purchasing patterns between 2013-2017 in 8 participating CSUs and assesses progress towards the Sustainability Food Policy goal of 20% Real Food by 2020 using the Real Food Standards,the most comprehensive compilation of criteria and certifications to date within four major categories: local and community based, fair, ecologically sound, and humane.

What Did We Find?

Out of 8 participating California State Universities, the 3 schools with the highest overall real food percentage were CSU Chico with 16%, San Jose with 12% and Long Beach with 11%.

Out of the Real Food categories the average percentages were as follows:

  • Ecologically Sound - 6.375%
  • Local & Community Based - 2.12%
  • Fair - 2%
  • Humane - 1.875%
An average 75% of food purchasing was spent on conventional groceries.

6 out of the 8 CSUs described their dining service operation as self-operated with 2 campuses outsourcing their dining service to Sodexo.

We found discrepancies between Real Food Calculator assessment results and self-reported metrics.

Strategies for dining service in higher education institutions across the country have improved Real Food purchasing through creative and collaborative solutions and can be similarly applied in the CSUs.

Goal: reach 20% Sustainable or Real Food by 2020 for all CSUs.

How do we ensure the CSU Sustainable Food Policy goals are adhered to?

1. Shift towards more sustainable meat purchasing.

  • Recommendation: A significant change in Real Food percentages will happen when product shifts follow a less meat, better meat approach. This shift is the most impactful on animal, communities, and the environment’s health and welfare.
  • Impact: This concept, provides a healthier alternative to a 100% meat burger and cuts down on costs.

2. Design menus and dining service around real and sustainable food.

  • Recommendation: The menus planning process determines what will be purchased, enabling chef and quality-centric solutions to be implemented for improving real food purchasing. Programs such as Meatless Mondays or free plant-based meals on certain days can help introduce and transition customers to accept less meat, better meat dining service. Flexible menus can utilize strategies like the Better Burger Challenge and Blended Burger Project, or “flipping the plate.” Flipping meat main dishes for vegetable main dishes to reduce the meat to vegetable ratios. Reducing meat portions can help offset the cost for the higher welfare meat.
  • Impact: Students with more plant based diets have more affordable options. Reducing meat portions can help offset the cost for the higher welfare meat.

3. Work with local suppliers and small vendors to meet real food criteria and build up capacity.

  • Recommendation: Establish stable, effective, and respectful lines of communication with producers, smaller independent distributors, and/or regional food hubs that work directly with local producers.
  • Impact: More involved coordinating with institutions can completely change a producers’ production model in order to meet institutional demand needs, e.g. a soy vendor producing soymilk switched to solely producing tofu to meet the demand needs of the University of Vermont.

4. Develop relationships with multiple stakeholders and convene a campus-level Food Systems Working Group.

  • Recommendation: A regularly convening of multi-stakeholders through a Food Systems Working Group of: students, faculty, university and dining staff, community partners, technical experts, and producers will be able to better strategize together and create a comprehensive multi-year action plan that considers all stakeholders to track progress towards a real food system.
  • Impact: This working group provides an opportunity for transparency, open communication, and a body to ensure our institutions are accountable to the standards communities develop to ensure our sustained welfare.

How does a system-wide commitment to purchasing Real Food impact our community? 

The “High” Cost of Local Food: a corporation-sized myth eclipsing the solution we need.

The unsustainable, extractive, and unjust practices of a corporate-ran industrial agriculture assumes to lower production costs while increasing yields to maintain high profits. How does a corporation-friendly profit margin lead to a “cheaper” price, especially by degrading the health of communities and the land? How do we define the true cost of our food? When the dignity, safety and respect of producers & food-service workers are on the line, the “cost” of our food becomes exponentially more expensive and all the more detrimental to the health of our environment & communities. 

The Real Food Standards ensure that the value of our collective health, environments and communities are not eroded in favor of profit-driven corporate interests that aren’t invested in our collective well-being. Universities, or institutions of higher education (IHEs), and similarly sized institutions make up the largest proportion of contracts from Big Food corporations. The impact of one of the largest university systems in the world’s 6th largest economy committing to Real Food will disprove the most prevalent counter narrative to a sustainable & just food system for all: that real food costs more. The truth is real food doesn’t “cost more," industrialized agriculture does. 

What’s Next?

A system-wide CSU Food Systems Working Group aligned with both the CSU Sustainability Policy and California State Student Association’s (CSSA) Resolution for Real Food Systems in the CSUs can continue the research, implementation, and support for actions CSUs can take beyond the tracking and reporting of institutional purchasing towards a Real Food System in the CSUs.

The next steps for this project are to ensure a regularly-convened multi-stakeholder (representatives of groups that are directly impacted by the CSUs food purchasing decisions) working group to ensure the university system is on track to meet the “20% by 2020” goal, connecting administrators to local producers and ensuring equal opportunity to equitable contracts, and transparency throughout the university communities.

View and download the full report here.


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