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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

“Real Food:” What it is, Why We Want it, and How We Get More

<omes to food, a lot of people have the mentality of “it tastes good, I enjoy it, don’t ruin it for me by telling me all the problems with it.” At least that was how I was for a long time. And while it’s hard to face the uncomfortable realities behind our habits, we cannot afford to further distance ourselves from the process that brings food to our plates.

In our complacency, we’ve bred a system that gives us as much food as we can get at the lowest cost, and more often than not this compromises our health and environment. From chickens that grow so fat so fast that they cannot support themselves, to European banned and minimally tested genetically modified corn dominating eighty-five percent of US fields, we’ve reached a point where we need to actively seek out food we can deem “real.”

Since 2010, Carleton students have been working with a national organization called the Real Food Challenge (RFC) to try and bring more of this “real food” into our dining halls. Real food is defined as food that truly nourishes producers, consumers, communities and the planet—a type of food that is increasingly difficult to find in America’s flawed food system.

Two hundred years ago, ninety percent of us were farmers. Today, we rely on less than two percent of the US population to provide all our food. This has created a system that depends on large factory farms and fossil fuels, meaning agriculture contributes more to climate change than all forms of transport combined. It also means questionable practices, chemicals that destroy wildlife, decreased biodiversity, animal abuse, and unknown additives.

The label “real food” tries to seek out food that doesn’t do this. If a food falls into at least one of the categories of local and community based, fair, ecologically sound, or humane, the RFC will deem it “real,” but their standards are fairly high. The guidelines carefully exclude foods with simple labels like “natural” or “raised without antibiotics,” which actually have little difference from their poorly produced counterparts. It prioritizes food that comes from local farmers, whose smaller farms promise carefully cultivated food and lower carbon footprint.

Real Food also encompasses organic, humanely raised, and fairly traded products. Because our dining halls feed thousands of students, small product shifts carry enormous purchasing power. Over the years, real food purchases have changed the lives of local farmers, like Lisa Klein from Hidden Stream Farm, whose grass-fed pork farm was “in the red” until Bon Appétit facilities across the Twin Cities began sourcing from them.

Many students are unaware that Carleton is a leader in campus food reform. We were one of the first schools to pilot the RFC’s Real Food Calculator program, which helps students interpret our dining invoices and enter data about our food purchases.

The Real Food Calculator determines whether or not a purchase can be considered “real,” and calculates our overall percentage and breakdowns in categories like produce, baked goods, and more. The first time students ran the Calculator in fall 2010, Carleton sat at about fifteen percent “real” food. Today, we average twenty-three percent, which is twice the national average, and we hope to continue climbing.

Last year also marked the creation of the Food Alliance, an effort to unite all the different students, staff, and community members involved in food at Carleton. Every other week, leaders from Carleton’s food groups like Food Truth, Firebellies, and Farm House meet with Bon Appétit chefs and managers, as well as members of the larger food community, to discuss events, ideas, and concerns.

We have established a small food-systems working group in conjunction with the Real Food Calculator dedicated to continuing research on further sustainable shifts, without raising overall meal plan costs. And there was a time when many of you probably signed a petition asking the president to commit to thirty-five percent real food by 2020. However, after a long campaign, we could not convince President Steve Poskanzer to sign onto this agreement.

Thus, Carleton has the base to make serious change in the food system. We have strong relationships with many local farmers and our farm mentorship program connects fifteen Carls to intern and volunteer at local farms. Our dining services share a vision for food reform, and there are systems put in place to unite food-interested students and further policy making. 

This being said, things are far from perfect. While twenty-three percent is above average relative to other schools it is still only twenty-three percent. And though Carleton states in its Climate Action Plan that it will “encourage [its] food service provider to increase percentages of local, organic, and sustainable food purchases,” there is no official plan is in place. The President refuses to sign onto any sort of formal food policy commitment, despite our preparation, collaboration, and widespread support from students and alums.

So food reform at Carleton stands at an interesting crossroads. Do we continue to fight with an unwieldy President and get articulation in writing, or shift gears and pursue food policy changes without an official commitment?

Food Truth members are looking to the Food Calculator to find more product shifts we can make in our dining halls to increase Real Food percentages. We still hope to reach thirty-five percent real food by 2020 on our own. There are also larger ideas of creating communal kitchens or institutionalizing the Real Food Calculator, but we need more student support and awareness to make them happen.

Luckily, there are many ways to learn more and become involved. October 24th is National Food Day, and to celebrate, Food Truth and other groups on campus will be organizing many food related events in the coming weeks. Attend a speaker on fair trade bananas October 16th, take a “food tour” of campus over mid-term break, or stop at a table during Food Week to learn more about food issues.

Or, simply take a second to ask a dining hall worker where that watermelon came from (maybe even volunteer to help enter data into the Real Food Calculator and find out for yourself). And if you want to become involved in food policy making at Carleton, come to Food Truth meetings Mondays at 8pm in the Sayles Hill Lounge. Become a part of the conversation that’s shaping the future of food at Carleton, the community, and the globe.

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