For Our Future: Students Reflect on Real Food Rising

October 29, 2013
Teaser Image: For Our Future: Students Reflect on Real Food Rising

Don't take our word for it -- here are three students' reflections on their experience from Real Food Rising, Real Food Challenge's third national summit:

Addison Del Mastro from Drew University (Madison, NJ)

I am writing this partly for a wide audience, to bring our message to more people who may not be in the food movement. I am writing partly for the people who are in the food movement, as a sort of reflection of our progress thus far. And, to be honest, I am writing it also for myself, to try and set down in writing while I still can what an incredible experience Real Food Rising was.

Sometimes it can feel like we are a minority: that wider society either doesn’t care or does not know we exist. And while the focus at Real Food Rising was on those in attendance, simply the fact that all of us were there belied the notion that our movement is limited or self-absorbed. We were there not to pat each other on the back but to help each other along. We were there not to be an echo chamber, but a loudspeaker. And we were not there for ourselves but for our society and for our future.

We were nearly 200 students from more than 60 schools. We travelled in every way from a short bike ride into town to a flight halfway across the country. We came from every corner of America, from New Jersey and California to Louisiana and Maine. We were students from large schools and small schools, urban areas and rural areas, conservative backgrounds and liberal backgrounds, students of political science and students of art and music. Assembled in that conference room over the weekend were not a crowd of group-thinking hopeless idealists, but a diverse, engaged cross-section of our entire nation.

What we learned should, I suppose, be a major part of what I brought home. And it is. We learned about the importance of labor rights and protections, the corporate-agribusiness funding of university curricula, the plight of small farmers in America, and so much more. And we learned plenty of details and strategies for running our clubs and campaigns at our schools.

I came away with new ideas for our own campaign, which is already at the implementation stage. We’ve been searching for specific sustainable products to switch in; this is the real core of implementation, it’s not easy, and it’s the thing I want most to see in our campaign. Fittingly, at the expo tables one night, were folks with info on fair trade bananas, organic rainforest-grown yerba mate, sustainable dark chocolate. All were delicious. I made sure to save a pamphlet from each for myself – and one for my dining manager.

And yet the statistics or the bits of specific knowledge in my notebook – even specific ideas to advance our work on campus – are hardly my greatest takeaway, and they will not be my greatest inspiration. It was simply being surrounded by so many people with whom I shared so much that will stand out, long after I’ve forgotten how many colleges are catered by which company or which activist said a particular thing. It is this social, communal aspect that can never quite be replicated and is therefore most memorable. It took no effort to “meet” someone, beyond a brief introduction or a smile. It almost felt as if we knew each other already.

Towards the end of the conference, when the microphone was made open to anyone who wanted to give a closing word, one young woman stated explicitly what had made the experience so amazing. She said that she could go up to anyone and start a conversation about the work we are doing, and ended, “And it’s a conversation I want to have for the rest of my life.”

I could not have said it better. But to her words I would add, it is not something we may merely want. It is a conversation that we are having, even if we are no longer together in the same room. I know this because years will not erase the connections we made with each other or reverse the progress we have achieved. I knew this when a girl I had barely spoken to held my hand and promised to help me with the food campaign at my school. I knew this when people I did not know and may not have even met silently touched me on the shoulder to tell me that I had somehow managed to inspire them or make them smile. I knew this when, at a protest in front of a Wendy’s, an elderly woman in the passenger seat of a car beamed at us as she raised and lowered her hands to the rhythm of our chant.

It is a conversation between ages and races, backgrounds and experiences. And it is a conversation sometimes fraught with tension but always brimming with hope. I can be sure, after last weekend, that our ultimate success is certain. We are all invisibly holding hands, waiting for the day we now know is coming.

Carine Sidhom and Emily Struzenberg from Gonzaga University (Spokane, WA)

Neither the blustery Minnesota autumn nor countless hours on a stuffy, bouncy plane, could deter us from traveling cross country, equipped only with the promise of stimulating conversation, a plethora of Birkenstocks and amazing food.

Finally, after numerous, frantic emails and frenzied fund raising, a rogue trip to the airport, and a 2 a.m. arrival we found ourselves surrounded by a sea of sleeping bag-enveloped foodies.

When Sofie, our RFO, greeted us with a couple of fair trade bananas, we were sold on the real food movement—all in.

We spent rest of the weekend immersed in enriching conversations, preceded by getting-to-know-you’s and “how good is this hemp milk?!” We drank ample yerba mate while listening to a panel discussion and learning how to mobilize our peers against food giants and promote local food.

Learning about the underlying systems of oppression upon which agribusiness is built really equipped us with the knowledge and credibility to lead on campus. We always knew we were the means, but we did not realize the power we hold on campus and the ability to engage the Gonzaga’s body.

More empowered than ever, we continue the real food movement at Gonzaga as newly self-declared activists.

Anna Hankins from The University of Massachusetts at Amherst (Amherst, MA)

What is real food? What does it even mean to be organic, local, ecologically sound, and humanely raised? Look around your campus dining hall, the cafeteria in your workplace, or the food distributors in your community. Do people have access to nourishing food that’s produced in sustainable ways? More often than not, the answer is no. Real Food Challenge is working to change this through education and the purchasing power of colleges and universities.

I suppose it may be helpful to first give a little background on what Real Food Challenge (RFC) is and what this means at my university. RFC is a national campaign to shift $1 billion of the $5 billion college/university food purchasing industry to “real food,” meaning local, ecologically sound, fair trade, and humanely raised. This is a big deal. The University of Massachusetts Amherst signed on to the Real Food Campus Commitment last May, which means that our Chancellor has agreed to transition to 20% real food on campus by the year 2020, and believe me, we are well on our way. We are a school that spends $25 million a year on food through a self-operated system and is ranked the #3 best campus dining in the country. By 2020 we will have shifted at least $5 million a year towards real food. Wow. We are part of a national movement that is changing the trajectory of American agriculture.

I found out about Real Food Challenge after I met fellow Green Girl Julia Whitten at TTG’s Green U in 2012, as well as Raychel Santo and Ruthie Burrows. I learned about the amazing work happening around RFC at their schools (University of Alabama and Johns Hopkins) and watched them attend the summit last year at JHU. I remember looking at their pictures and thinking that this was an incredibly powerful movement and that I wanted to get involved with the campaign at UMASS as soon as I possibly could.

So what does this all mean? Well, UMASS Amherst is the largest school to have signed this campus commitment and our team is established, growing, and continuously learning. We have a food system working team, outreach & events working group, a student facilited internship

that is running the Real Food Calculator, and a core team. Not to mention we have an Auxiliary Services that is able and willing to help with this campaign. It also means that not even two months into my first year of college I was boarding a flight to Minnesota to attend the Real Food Challenge National Summit, Real Food Rising.

In all honesty, I really didn’t know what to expect. I was given the opportunity to attend, along with four other members of the UMASS Real Food team and that was that. I didn’t even really have time to think about the summit until the night before when I was last minute packing. After arriving in Minneapolis and making my way over to the University of Minnesota Twin Cities where the summit was being held, I instantly felt the incredible energy coming from this movement and from every individual that was part of it. It only took a few minutes of being there for me to go from feeling like a small part of the UMASS campaign, to a crucial member of a national movement that was working towards a better future. The summit began with some far-from-boring ice breakers, where students had the opportunity to share what brought them there and what they hoped to gain from this experience. It quickly became clear that everyone had a unique and powerful story, but the commonality amongst everyone was that we were young people with a desperate desire to change the way this world works. We were gathering with the hope that through this campaign and the power of our voices and our universities, we could shape a more just world.

One of the best parts of this experience for me was becoming closer friends with the other members of UMASS RFC and realizing what our place was within this national movement. Not only did I become closer with my classmates, but I connected with students from around the country, including students from the University of Washington from whom I learned about Prop 522 and their involvement in the campaign to pass a bill that would require the mandatory labeling of genetically modified organisms. I became friends with students from New York to Indiana to Alabama and California. I feel incredibly thankful to be at a school where RFC is having such an enormous impact and I feel overwhelmingly excited to be connected to students across the nation through this network. I think one of the coolest feelings is looking around a room of young leaders and realizing that our voices are in fact powerful and we are effectively working towards a better future.

This past weekend was not only about networking with other students and attending powerful workshops on student-worker solidarity, food justice, and the future of this movement, it was about people coming together. It was about Real Food Rising.