Summer in Colorado has come to mean something new for its residents. Now, afternoon showers and breezy sunshine are foreboding indicators of the new normal: record-breaking wildfires, floods and droughts along the Front Range and Western Slope. Colorado isn’t alone — the physical impacts of global warming have been unquestionable for many populations in the western half of the United States, including New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, California and Wyoming and parts of Texas. While powerful non-profits negotiate with lawmakers about emissions standards and corporations manipulate branding to reflect the “greener” zeitgeist, sustainable solutions have been put into motion by an unlikely group of agents: young people on campuses across the country fighting for food justice.
Young people in Durango, Colorado — itself named a “primary natural disaster area” by the National Drought Mitigation Herald — decided to take matters into their own hands. At Durango’s Fort Lewis College Environmental Center, students developed an innovative plan that will support community based, ecologically sound, regional and seasonal food producers — a strategy to mitigate climate change and support the development of a more resilient food system in the region.
The Durango food system is currently witnessing the dangerous effects of severe climate change: rising temperatures are creating a drier environment, which has the potential to decrease soil moisture and water quantity, while increasing the need for water to sustain crops. Climate change also brings about the potential for more extreme precipitation events, such as the ones that caused last fall's notorious mudslides, as well as an earlier snowpack melt that brings severe flooding in the summer months. In a state home to some of the largest methane-producing Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) in the country, imagining a new food system was no small task.
After months of hard work and planning by students, staff and food service administrators, last week College President Thomas committed to devote at least 20% of the school's food budget — nearly $320,000 annually — to local, sustainable and fair farms and food businesses.
Charles Clayton, a student who has worked on the Real Food Challenge campaign since Fall 2013 said, "I really valued this learning process - it has shown me how to actually make change and find my place within that process. When (President Thomas) signed the RFC Campus Commitment, the realization hit me that, "Wow! We are actually doing something big here."
This announcement is the latest achievement of the national, student-led Real Food Challenge movement. Active on over 300 campuses nationwide, the goal: shift $1 billion in college food budgets to “real food” by 2020
At Fort Lewis, the campaign has involved a strategic examination of the local food system--looking at the products available in the short growing season of the high-altitude desert plateau and from the relatively small scale agricultural producers it supports. As there is no ‘distribution hub’ for aggregating local products, students so far have filled that niche. Each month, a team of Environmental Center students work in partnership with Sodexo to determine dining hall needs, contact local growers to identify product availability, place orders, and arrange for product delivery.
Now, the movement is spreading. As the worst drought in 100 years ravages much of California, where agriculture represents 80% of all water usage, student activists are mobilizing. As Fort Lewis made their announcement, 40 students from across the 23-campus California State University (CSU) system gathered in Santa Cruz to strategize about a campaign of their own.
They’ve called on the statewide board of trustees to adopt a policy along with Fort Lewis College and 20 other leading colleges mandating 20% real food by 2020 and complete transparency in where food served to the over 500,000 students comes from.
Will the CSU Trustees listen? After months of research, petitioning, and testimony at board meetings, we hope so! The trustees plan to vote on the measure this month.
Whatever happens, the Real Food Challenge campaign is clearly gaining steam. And food is being increasingly recognized as a powerful tool for climate action. On February 27th, Real Food Challenge co-founder David Schwartz, was honored by Variety Magazine in LA with the first annual Unite4:Humanity Inspiration Award for environmental action.
Fort Lewis’ fight to combat regional droughts and wildfires with food is not theirs alone. The reality of climate change is global, and it will take all of our regional efforts to challenge its impacts. Join the movement, get REAL!