Throughout October, Campus Dining and FEAST have teamed up to celebrate and bring awareness to Food Justice Month, which highlights the real food movement over the course of 30 days. The real food movement is not just about the quality of the food that people eat, but also about the benefits that sustainable food selection has on the entire food industry.
“Students use their dollars as votes for the food that Occidental purchases,” FEAST president and Campus Dining intern Skye Harnsberger (senior) said. “For every organic or locally sourced item that a student buys, Campus Dining’s system records that as interest in those options.”
Local, humane, fair trade, sustainable, real. We see signs bearing these terms all over the Marketplace and throughout the Cooler, but what do they mean? When Campus Dining celebrates the 24 percent of food at Occidental considered real, we all wonder: what makes up the other 76 percent?
The Real Food Challenge
In October of 2014, Occidental joined 26 other colleges across the country by signing on to the Real Food Challenge Commitment to have 30 percent purchased food qualifying as real by 2020.
The Real Food Challenge defines “real food” as “food which truly nourishes producers, consumers, communities and the earth.”
Essentially, the definition of real food is the same as that of sustainable food. To be considered real, a product has to fit at least one of the four categories of sustainability: local, fair trade, humane or ecologically sourced.
Icons by Cal Barr
According to Campus Dining sustainability intern Sammy Herdman (sophomore), the Real Food Challenge requires a good to be certified by a third party to fit its metrics. For example, any food described as organic has to be USDA certified for it to count toward the challenge.
When signing on to the agreement, Campus Dining set goals for Occidental that exceed the scope of the Real Food Challenge. While the main goal of 30 percent purchased food qualifying as real by the year 2020 conforms to the Real Food Challenge, Campus Dining has set additional goals for 2020: 20 percent humane animal products, 50 percent ecologically sound seafood and 50 percent local and ecologically sourced produce.
According to Campus Dining, as of the 2015–2016 academic year, Occidental has exceeded the goal of 50 percent ecologically sound seafood to 54 percent and are just six percent shy of reaching 30 percent overall real food.
Obstacles to achieving real food
On a less successful note, only 4 percent of Occidental’s food qualifies as local, 3 percent as humane and a mere 1 percent as fair trade.
“When we consider new products, sustainability is always a major factor. When it comes to switching products, price plays more of a role,” Herdman said.
According to Herdman, sustainable food procurement only rose to prominence in the past decade and especially since Occidental’s commitment to the Real Food Challenge in 2014. Before joining the challenge, the college solely prioritized price, but now focuses on switching to more sustainable sources as much as the budget allows. Herdman’s main task as sustainability intern is searching for new sources that will get Campus Dining closer to their goals.
“If I find humane eggs with the same price point or is just slightly higher, we’ll definitely switch as long as logistically distribution would work out,” Herdman said.
Unfortunately, logistical problems can interfere with Campus Dining’s ability to select more sustainable options.
“I’ve been in contact with ranchers from Santa Barbara, V6 Ranch, who have humane beef, which we currently have a low percentage of,” Herdman said. “After we figured out how we could work with our current distributors to transport the beef here, the price point was ultimately just too expensive.”
Associate Director of Campus Dining Robert Starec notes similar logistical issues with pricing. According to Starec, there are not enough large scale suppliers offering sustainable options at reasonable costs, making switching to real food options difficult.
“Compared to what we’re using now, the costs would be double, if not triple, to bring on a natural product,” Starec said. “It is difficult to expect people to consider that to be a reasonable option. If I am not comfortable paying that price, how can I expect our customers to be?”
While he would like the Cooler — where Starec focuses his attention — to have as many diverse options as possible, he also acknowledges the importance of keeping the customers in mind.
“We realize that we have students on budgets and faculty, staff and visitors who also dine at our facilities, so we want our menu to be diverse but also for our people to feel as though they are receiving a good value,” Starec said.
So where does our food actually come from?
Map by Cal Barr.
Campus Dining currently has over 50 suppliers. While more than half of these are local businesses, Occidental mostly receives a small number of specialty items from them. The bulk of the food that the student body consumes comes from conventional national distributors.
According to Herdman, Sysco — the largest distributor in North America — supplies approximately 20 percent of Occidental’s food. Sysco supplies all of the staple foods and ingredients as well as most of the school’s meat. All food products that Sysco provides fail to meet the Real Food Challenge’s standards.
Most of Occidental’s sustainable foods are from specialty suppliers. United Natural Food incorporated (UNFI) is the leading national distributor of organic, natural and specialty foods and supplies most of the grocery products in the marketplace, such as Clif Bars and Amy’s frozen meals.
Harvest Santa Barbara is one of the newer suppliers. It is a small family-owned company that collects fresh produce from local farms in Carpinteria, Goleta, Fillmore and Imperial each morning and brings the produce back to their warehouses. They then distribute the produce to institutions, including Occidental.
According to both Herdman and Starec, Campus Dining is restricted by logistical factors when choosing a supplier. When comparing similar products for a bulk order, the packaging, delivery times and frequency, as well as Campus Dining’s storage availability, all play into the decision.
“Because we have limited storage, we need to get deliveries almost everyday, and a lot of sustainable sources, especially with humane meat from northern California, can’t make the trip to Occidental as much as we would need.” Herdman said.
Starec also finds that storage and reduced preparation space in the Cooler impacts the amount of options available. Due to the Cooler’s limited resources, a lot of the items the Cooler sells have to arrive pre-prepared, and few organic suppliers currently offer that option on a grand enough scale yet due to lack of demand.
According to Starec, the real food movement is still new in the scheme of bulk food service, so supply has yet to catch up with growing demand. Occidental Campus Dining will have to wait until their mainstream suppliers provide a greater selection of real bulk food.
Campus Dining is taking strides to extend and institutionalize the campus’s real food movement. Zoe Alles (sophomore) is co-chair for Occidental’s Food Systems Working Group. Started recently by Campus Dining, the Food Systems Working Group is a mix of students, faculty and staff that meets twice a semester to discuss food policy for the school. The next meeting will take place in November.
According to Harnsberger, FEAST president and Campus Dining intern, students have played a large role in the shift toward more sustainable options. It was the growth in interest in sustainable food from students and student organizations such as FEAST that has spread awareness of real and sustainably sourced foods through campus.
Alles is also working as an intern with Campus Dining on a food policy document that would expand Occidental’s participation in the Real Food Challenge. According to Alles, this document will institutionalize the initiatives that Campus Dining already practices such as Food Justice Month and Meatless Monday to ensure that the movement toward real food is more than just a fad.
According to Starec, who has been at Occidental for 24 years, the real food movement already shows signs of being long-term. In his time on campus, Starec has seen plenty of dining trends sweep through the student body, but due to efforts by Campus Dining and interest from the student body, as well as its national scope, he believes that the real food movement will be here to stay.
“Right now [the trend] is sustainable and organic but we’ve seen a number of trends come through the school. Regardless of the trend, we try to stay at the front of things, to be proactive rather than reactive and anticipate the needs of our students based on what we see coming forward,” Starec said. “The current trend is the shift towards being more sustainable, and unlike other trends like the low carb craze and things like that, this one is going to be around for a while.”
The power for more sustainable options on campus is in the student body’s hands — and in its purchasing power. Each small decision a student makes to purchase the Organic Bar on a Thursday night, or an organic apple in the morning, increases demand not only for Campus Dining to supply more sustainable options, but for major suppliers to look into sustainable options as well. These decisions are the students’ opportunity to vote on what options are available, and as Harnsberger said, the power of the dollar vote is strong and every vote counts.