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College Students Demand "Real Food" In Campus Dining Halls

For the last decade, college students across the United States have organized to change their campus food. From the University of Vermont to UC Santa Cruz, students in the Real Food Challenge have advocated for colleges to serve “real food” in their dining halls -- food that is environmentally friendly, socially responsible, and healthy.

Why “real food?” Students in the network cite a range of concerns, including the environmental degradation of corporate agricultural practices, the low wages and health concerns of migrant laborers, and the dizzying number of additives in processed food. The Real Food Challenge hopes to address these concerns by investing in food that “truly nourishes producers, consumers, communities, and the earth.”

The main focus of the campaign is on colleges and universities. Educational institutions have much greater purchasing power than individual consumers, so the Real Food Challenge hopes to harness that power to make huge changes in the food system; one consumer might not make a big difference by buying organic vegetables or cage-free eggs, but a university’s dining budget has the power to support a local family farm or a Fair Trade cooperative in Central America.

Students in the Real Food Challenge have already achieved several successes. Since the organization’s founding in 2008, students have won commitments to purchase 20% "real food" at over 80 universities. Dozens of campuses have piloted the Real Food Calculator, a tool that helps students track how much “real food” is in their campus kitchens. And over 1,000 students have attended regional leadership training to learn how to launch campaigns at their universities.

Seeing Food Through a Moral Lens

The goals of the Real Food Challenge best exemplify the moral system of exchange. Rather than demanding the greatest quantity of food for the lowest price (a hallmark of the price system), these students insist that their dining halls should support the substantive goals of environmental responsibility and social justice. Like many other moral systems, the Real Food Challenge relies on watchdog groups to ensure that their ethical standards are maintained by the universities who sign the campaign commitment; they train students to conduct audits of college dining budgets, and they use third-party certifications like USDA Organic and Certified Humane to define “real food.”

For the students at the Real Food Challenge, food is not only about calories, taste, or even price. They believe that the way we eat influences the health of our soil and water, the wellbeing of farmworkers and food distributors, and the vibrancy of local economies. By changing cafeteria menus, these students hope to change the global agricultural system.

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