Campus / Food Politics / News / January 19, 2011

Real Food Challenge for real students

With full class schedules and numerous extracurricular activities, students often find it easiest, even necessary, to eat and run without thinking about what they’re putting in their bodies. That’s something the Real Food Challenge (RFC), which will be visiting Knox until Jan. 20, aims to change.

“Real food is food that truly nourishes the earth, the consumers, the community and the producers,” said Katie Blanchard, one of two RFC representatives visiting the college. “It’s sustainable, just and humane to every human, animal and soil involved.”

According to Blanchard and RFC representative Katelyn Hale, who also visited Knox, the nation’s three major college dining service companies employ over 380,000 people and have a yearly revenue of over 20 billion dollars.

“College and university food systems are a really, really big business,” Blanchard said.

Changing that fact is one of the goals of the RFC, which is currently working towards diverting 20 percent of that income towards “real food” by 2020. This can be accomplished in a number of ways through things such as buying more food locally, avoiding foods that are grown by poorly-treated workers and serving food that is healthier overall.

Blanchard and Hale presented the concept of “The Big Squeeze,” in which the farmer experiences high expenses for things such as land, seeds and fertilizers even while being pressured to sell his harvest for lower prices by suppliers. This is the type of relationship that RFC wants to avoid by establishing harmonious relationships between the farmers, the individual consumer, the larger community and the earth itself.

“We are trying to make systematic change, not just change in one part,” Hale said.

Although Knox has an independent dining services program, the RFC emphasized that many of these changes are still relevant to Knox.

“Students are in a powerful place to make change,” Hale said.

In a second presentation, Hale and Blanchard taught Knox students strategies for implementing the changes they wished to see on Knox campus. They emphasized the need to have a strong core group willing to work towards an outcome, and the necessity of recruiting younger members who can carry on a project when seniors graduate.

Blanchard spoke at length about the need to have time-specific goals that were ambitious but achievable while still being measurable.

“Half the battle is figuring out what your goals are,” she said. “What do you even want?”

Once the goals are established —both large goals that, if achieved, would cause a group to cease to exist and smaller goals that mark progress along the way—Blanchard and Hale advised doing research and establishing “targets,” the people who have the power to assist or block the progress of a group’s goals.

“Their decision will make it or break it,” Hale said. “If you aren’t targeting your action towards someone, you won’t go anywhere.”

They said a group should also engage in a wide variety of tactics, everything from posters and petitions to boycotts, in an escalating manner.

“You need to escalate your activities so there’s always that threat of doing more,” Blanchard said.

Students at the workshop also had a chance to brainstorm. Although many expressed a desire to see more locally-grown food in the cafeteria, they acknowledged that it can be difficult to feed approximately 1,300 students daily solely through local suppliers. Some is served now, but the amount is not significant.

“It’s not that much because there aren’t much local growers,” said Director of Dining Services Helmut Mayer, who attended one of the RFC workshops.

Despite challenges, Blanchard and Hale encouraged Knox students to recognize their own power.

“Student have a really large part in [the college’s] economic system,” Hale said. “Because you’re a student on campus, you’re a guaranteed income for dining services.”

Katy Sutcliffe

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