Real Food for the Crimson Tide: Winning Food Chain Transparency at the University of Alabama

April 11, 2013
Teaser Image: Real Food for the Crimson Tide...

This post is from Bonnie May Maye, Southeast Regional Field Organizer. This is the second in a series of blog posts from the Southeast Aramark Road Trip. 

"It's so exciting to finally have achieved what we have been working toward for the past two years,” reflected student leader Olivia Bensinger after our visit to the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, half-way through our Road Trip visiting schools with Aramark Dining Services throughout the Southeast.

The Sustainable Food Committee of the Environmental Council (ECo) at University of Alabama has been a driving force in the "Get Real, Aramark" campaign. After a year of organizing, we were excited to find out that all of their hard work has paid off, as the they will begin the Real Food Calculator assessment this spring.

Moving toward food chain transparency at UA was by no means easy, however --- it required serious organizing.

In October 2011, the Sustainable Food Committee hosted an event for the first annual Food Day. Over 100 students participated in photo petitions demonstrating their passion for getting more local, ecologically-sound, fair, and humane food on campus.

Following up with this momentum of widespread student support, they asked their campus dining provider, Aramark, if they could run the Real Food Calculator to could learn about where their food comes from. Despite strong student interest in the project, Aramark refused their request.

In February 2012, students at University of Alabama joined 150 others, from more than 50 schools, at the the first Real Food Challenge national summit. There, dozens of other students from schools with Aramark Dining Services were facing the same problems - even at schools where students had long-standing collaboration with dining. This reluctance to work with students was a result of policy at the corporate level. After many meetings throughout the summit, the "Get Real, Aramark" campaign was born.

Energized by the community-building and strategizing at the summit, UA student leaders  returned to campus to write letters to the editor of their school paper, The Crimson White, urging their fellow students to take a stand against Aramark's unwillingness to collaborate with students.

One student wrote, "The solution is simple: the University must hold Aramark responsible for its grievances against students, and reopen the communication between students, Aramark and University employees."

While UA students joined others in national Days of Action, they also met with stakeholders on campus to build support for their campaign. They gained the support of an important administrator, who urged Aramark to cooperate with students’ requests. The same message was being communicated to Aramark from students and allies around the country, demonstrating a real urgency for a shift in Aramark's corporate policy.

The message from students like UA’s Sustainable Food Committee was clear, and Aramark had to respond.

And respond they did! 

Students gather around Real Food Wheel during UA workshop

Two weeks before we arrived on-campus, UA’s Sustainable Food Committee met with administrators again to discuss the calculator. This time, they had Aramark’s 50-page guide to the Real Food Calculator in hand -- a manual created to facilitate the Real Food Calculator with Aramark Dining Services and ensure students can do the assessment.

After almost two years of hard work, UA’s Sustainable Food Committee is moving forward with the Real Food Calculator. This means that students will be able to research and understand where the food they are required to purchase through meal plans comes from, and how those purchasing relationships do or do not align with their values, and those of the University. The Real Food Calculator results will then allow UA to set goals for moving towards a more healthy, just, and sustainable food system.

Because of the efforts of students like them around the country, Aramark has had to listen and take this important step towards food chain transparency.