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Students come together, learn about local and sustainable food

<n effort to encourage college students to better understand what is in their meals, Real Food Challenge recently took their mission on the road, including a stop at St. Olaf on Feb. 9 and 10.  At the Olaf visit, Real Food Challenge leaders Katie Blanchard ’10 and Katelyn Hale, a 2009 graduate of Lewis and Clark College, conducted workshops on strategic campaign planning and justice in the food system, the latter particularly focused on anti-oppression and resistance training.

The trip to Northfield was part of Real Food Challenge’s six-state, eight-college road trip from Jan. 18 through Feb. 9 “The common goal is to shift 20% of the money colleges spend buying food to buying real food,” said Blanchard ’10, who created the trip with Hale and is part of Real Food Challenge’s administrative team.

The Real Food Challenge organization strives to get colleges across the country to improve the quality of the food they serve in their cafeterias. Blanchard has been involved with the Challenge since it was founded three years ago. “Students founded it because they wanted to get real food in the US,” she explained.

According to their website, the Challenge defines “real food” as food which “truly nourishes producers, consumers, communities and the earth.  It is a food system–from seed to plate–that fundamentally respects human dignity and health, animal welfare, social justice and environmental sustainability.” The Challenge team works to get youth across the country involved in demanding real food for their schools.

The Challenge team runs programs and events from different regions of the country. Blanchard and Katelyn Hale, a 2009 graduate of Lewis and Clark College, were both part of the administrative team for the Midwest. They came up with the idea of a road trip as a way to reach college students from different parts of the country. “The reason for the road trip was to get more region of the country involved in the Real Food Challenge” explained Blanchard. The trip covered over 2,500 miles of the Midwest, where Blanchard and Hale visited Knox College, Kalamazoo College, University of Toledo, University of Missouri, Belloit College, Carleton College, St. Olaf College, and Macalester College. “We wanted the focus to be on the Midwest because it’s a region of the country that rarely gets a lot of attention compared to the coasts. This is a shame because agriculture is such a large part of the Midwestern culture,” said Blanchard.  “The colleges were very welcoming and receptive. The students really wanted to be there for the presentations.”

The Road Trip presentations covered three topics: the injustice of dining corporations, how students can get involved to create change and how to strategically plan to create lasting changes. The first topic was meant to educate students about the inner workings of the college’s dining corporations, like Sodexo, Aramark, and Compass Group, the parent company of Bon Appetit. For example, according to Blanchard, the majority of food service workers make less than minimum wage working for these companies, putting them below the poverty line. Also, larger dining corporations are not interested in contracting with small farmers and instead make business deals with large, often inhumane, food corporations like Tyson.

The second presentation focused on getting students involved in creating the changes they want their schools to make. This involved brainstorming ideas for how to get their schools to make the switch to incorporate more “real food” in their dining halls. The third presentation was meant to get students to implement their ideas from the previous presentation and to get their colleges on board.

“Kalamazoo’s contract just finished with Sodexo so they are working on getting more local farmers signed onto their contract,” said Blanchard. “This works for colleges and farmers, because when local farmers sign on with colleges and know they have a solid contract to produce a certain vegetable, let’s say, then the farmer can work on producing a large crop because they know they have a market.”

Colleges are starting to recognize this principle and are trying to become more progressive in this department. Real Food Challenge hopes to continue to work with students and colleges across the country to make sure colleges can make the switch to more local and sustainable food. Blanchard explained, “let’s be honest, food is only going to get more expensive. This means that we need to have more local farmers… we need to be surrounding our towns and our cities with farms.” Added Blanchard, “I hope that Real Food Challenge continues to do more road trips to make sure this can happen.”

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