2020, the year that we named our benchmark year, our year of celebration, is now becoming a moment of crossroads in our current reality. The global pandemic and the largest human rights movement in the world triggered by the state-sanctioned murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, Nina Pop, and countless other Black folks have disrupted the status quo. What will come next month is unknown to us let alone what will come next school year. The systems that we are held to and what has upheld the interest of those in power, including our food system, have not been able to adapt to this moment. We see the status quo crumbling away.
At Real Food Challenge, we also see why our values for the food system we are building towards are important and urgently needed. We are seeing that building a resilient, local food system is how we can adapt to our new reality. We are seeing why dignified and just labor is critical and life-saving for workers, especially during this global pandemic. We are seeing how a food system that centers efficiency and production leads to extractive and inhumane food production practices.
The disruptions from the pandemic and the uprisings lay bare the fundamental flaws of the structures we’ve adhered to, but we can seize this opportunity to rebuild. What seemed impossible to change is now doable and more importantly, it is necessary. The principles we move forward with will lay down the foundations of what we build tomorrow. But first thing’s first, what are those principles? How can we ensure that what we build towards is nourishing for ourselves, our communities, our producers, and the earth?
As our communities respond to these disruptions and continue to care for ourselves, we can re-imagine the food system as one that centers mutual aid and reciprocity. What if we had food systems that center racial equity, community care, and food sovereignty? What would the role of colleges and universities look like in this vision? The possibilities are only limited by our imaginations. The crossroad our network is presented with this year gives us a choice: learn from our experiences and uplift our insights to create bold and beautiful visions in this new world or rely on the conventional and outdated food system.
We recognize the power that anchor institutions, like colleges and universities, and most importantly the students attending them, have to make an impact. Not only that, the RFC network laid the groundwork of values-based food purchasing. We’ve been upholding a strong set of standards for what constitutes real food. We built the momentum to call for transparency and accountability from our supply chain. We challenge corporate consolidation in food industries by prioritizing small and mid-sized producers. We’ve built towards a more agile and responsive food system by investing in regional infrastructure. We made tremendous strides and our collective experiences are chock full of valuable learnings and insights. It’s time to recognize, uplift, and celebrate that!
At the same time, we need to keep building and adapting. From this work, we have uncovered what needs to be uprooted to reach our vision of a food system that nourishes us all. Corporate control is still very much present in institutions of higher ed through the food that is offered in dining. The majority of food service workers, who are predominantly Black and folks of color, were laid off without pay this spring during what was already a challenging and unprecedented global pandemic. Climate catastrophe is here and the worst offenders, some of which include big food corporations, continue to extract at violent rates. At the crux of it all, our food system upholds white supremacy and is used as a tool to enforce it.
From here it is crystal clear - we cannot stick to the status quo. It is not serving us. Our crossroads present us with a choice and we must move towards one that allows us to practice that bold and beautiful vision. The fight for a food system that nourishes us all continues.
In the new decade, Real Food Challenge will align its tools and resources more fully with the Real Meals Campaign, a producer-led campaign that calls on the Big 3 food service management companies (Aramark, Sodexo, and Compass Group) to fundamentally reorient their business model away from exclusive relationships with Big Food companies and towards real food. Our network has shown what actions can be made at the university level to build a real food campus. However, we’re learning campuses can only do so much without facing major barriers from farther down the supply chain and we need to address that.
Transparency and accountability will remain key principles in Real Food Challenge’s work. The Real Food Calculator which has provided that since RFC’s inception will be expanded to fit the needs of student leaders who are campaigning to build a more nourishing food system. Issues like food access and fair labor in the dining halls have come to the forefront while supporting Black and other producers of color are prioritized. RFC will pilot the expanded Calculator with a cohort of schools to develop the tool for transparency for the higher ed sector.