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Earth Eats: Real Food, Green Living

Colleges Accept Challenge To Offer Real Food In Cafeterias

Indiana University is one of 20 American colleges that pledged to buy at least 20 percent real food annually by 2020.

salad at a computer desk

Spring Forward

Spring semester classes are underway at Indiana University, which means campus cafeterias are serving thousands upon thousands of meals every day for the next four months. Hoosier students and professors are aiming to make those meals just a bit more sustainable.

Indiana University is one of 20 universities to sign the Real Food Challenge — a pledge to purchase at least 20 percent real food annually by 2020.

Real food is defined as that which is grown or produced under any of these criteria:

  1. Within 250 miles
  2. Under fair working conditions
  3. Using ecologically sound practices
  4. With the humane treatment of animals

Erin Kilhefner, a food anthropology student and the Membership and Publicity Director for the IU Student Sustainability Council, said the goals of the Real Food Challenge are definitely within reach.

“Living in a place like Bloomington, we have all the resources to do it,” she said. “It’s just a matter of bringing together a diverse group of stakeholders.”

But she acknowledges the complexity of the task at hand. When considering the preparation, packaging, transportation and disposal of food, the process is not so black and white.

Food Calculator

Beginning this semester, IU Food Working Group member and Professor of Geography Dan Knudsen will be leading efforts to track and assess trends in institutional purchasing using the Real Food Calculator (RFC). The RFC a tool developed to actualize real food spending as a metric so users can better learn about campus food systems and identify areas for progress and improvements.

The Real Food Challenge isn’t so much about buying strictly organic or local. The real issue here is that people need to know exactly what’s in the food they’re buying.

But, the particularity of the real food criteria makes calculating food purchasing a challenging task. “Take for instance a jar of mayonnaise,” Knudsen explains. “The eggs used may be cage-free, but you also have to figure in the labor working conditions under which the product was produced.”

Difficulties also arise from the sheer volume of food at play in the Indiana University food system. Presenting a ballpark scenario in which 2,000 salads are sold in a day, each containing a quarter head of iceberg lettuce, he estimated the need for 2,500 heads of lettuce in one week — a quantity nearly double the weekly output of the largest local farm near Bloomington.

To meet the campus food demand, the university must rely on contracts with food service providers from across the country, and this is where Knudsen warns that “getting all parties together is actually really difficult.” Since vendors source their products from a variety of producers, the true origin of a food product is often ambiguous or undisclosed.

“The Real Food Challenge isn’t so much about buying strictly organic or local,” Kilhefner says. “The real issue here is that people need to know exactly what’s in the food they’re buying.”

Make Changes Now

The larger question is what can be done quickly to create the most impact.

Kilhefner and Knudsen agree that gathering data to analyze food purchasing will be the first step in identifying areas in which the university can incorporate more real food on campus. They are also hoping to be able to leverage Indiana University’s large purchasing power in the marketplace.

Neither emphasizes purchasing goals by 2020 as the bottom line. Instead, they view the initiative as a continuing effort to increase the transparency of the food purchased on campus and to transition to a healthier, more sustainable food system.

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Tara Cobb

Tara Cobb is a student of public affairs at Indiana University. She volunteers at Mother Hubbard's Cupboard and is an advocate for food justice and community food security.

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