UI could improve food sustainability efforts through Real Food Challenge campaign

Editor’s note: This letter is a response to the previous article, “UI Dining Services uses local, sustainable sources,” published in the Dec. 5, 2013, edition of The Daily Illini.  

I think it’s great that the University of Illinois has gone trayless, begun to recycle glass and divert leftovers in new ways. 

It is crucial, however, that campuses nationwide adopt better purchasing practices in a standardized way, which is what Real Food Challenge aims to achieve by 2020. Real Food Challenge is a student-led movement that strives to create “a healthy, fair and green food system” on college campuses. 

Here’s why I think signing the Real Food Campus Commitment is both a critical step and an attainable objective for the University of Illinois. 

RFC’s calculator tool is student-run, which increases student knowledge about these issues and presents opportunities for connections between students and producers. Student investigation holds dining service providers accountable for their promotional claims and affirms the role of young people as decision makers within our food system. 

The calculator is versatile in its adaptation to the unique situations of different university campuses, but operates using the same rigorous measurement standards. For instance, some students volunteer to operate the calculator, some obtain academic credit and others are paid by their campus dining program. 

When assessing local purchasing, the calculator evaluates each of the individual ingredients, which represents a more rigorous analysis of food products. Furthermore, small producers and cooperatives are favored in the analysis; even if a Coca-Cola processing plant was located next to our campus, we could not count the product as “local.” 

The key to inclusivity is the calculator’s emphasis on producers that gross only 1 percent of the industry leader. It sounds like the University of Illinois would be well on its way to meeting local purchasing criteria using this method.

Moreover, part of RFC’s goal is to use institutional support to build the infrastructure necessary to support small-scale local- and community-based food producers who are producing food in sustainable, fair and humane ways. By your institution making a demonstrable commitment to sourcing from such farms, you support your local economy in creating demand and supporting these producers. In Baltimore, we’re seeing positive change resulting from Johns Hopkins University’s commitment, which has supported the creation of an innovative new Baltimore Food Hub, nearly doubled the size of a local grass-fed beef farm and helped an aquaculture facility take off. 

And we’re in the middle of a city!

It’s also important to note that if we all adopt different standards, cross-campus comparison becomes impossible and leaves room for “greenwashing”; objective standards are important because they provide an operational definition for words like “sustainable.” 

RFC’s reasonable goals (20 percent Real Food by 2020) are based on third-party academic reviews and are meant to be attainable anywhere in the nation despite differences in climate and culture.

Emily Nink,

senior at Johns Hopkins University, co-president of Real Food Hopkins  

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article to the editor incorrectly stated that Emily Nink was the co-president of Real World Hopkins. She is the co-president of Real Food Hopkins. The Daily Illini regrets the error.