Health Nutrition

Real Food Challenge Retreat

By Chloe Graffeo and Rachel Komich

Funded by the Voinovich School, the FoodMatters Club at Ohio University organized a trip to Chicago, IL from Feb. 6 through Feb. 9 to learn about strategies to bring the Real Food Challenge to OU. This is the account of two students who had the opportunity to attend the event.

We arrived at a Unity Lutheran church in Chicago around 1:30 in the morning on Jan. 23. We promptly sought out any open space on the floor of the church basement to sprawl out our sleeping bags for a few hours of sleep before the morning beckoned us awake. Around 8 A.M., we all got up to a gloriously satisfying spread of roasted breakfast potatoes, tofu scramble, sliced honey crisp apples and an array of bagels accompanied by nut butters and honey.

After a few exercises that introduced everyone to each other, we gathered in a small room, sitting crisscrossed on the floor for our first leadership workshop. The workshop picked apart the meaning of power beginning by taking a look at its most simple definition: “to be able to do”. This means that power is not necessarily a man at a podium, but rather people who display small, sometimes unintentional, actions that influence others. These people are called ‘drivers’ and are essential to a group working to procure major changes in a system. Next are ‘supporters’ who participate in events and attend meetings regularly but who do not act in major positions. On the outside are those who are ‘ready,’ or those people who may need more of a push to act and participate but are willing. We also discussed leadership groups who act as a body together, like ethical drivers, visionary drivers, strategic drivers, and task-oriented drivers.

After a lunch of chocolate coffee chili, hearty cornbread and a salad comprised of locally sourced lettuce, we went straight into a workshop learning about the food industry. We learned that seventy percent of campus dining is outsourced, and thirty percent of universities are self operated. Of those seventy percent of outsourced universities, three major companies control ninety percent of the business. These companies are Sodexo, Compass Group, and Aramark, and together they make up a twenty billion dollar industry. To put this in perspective, the only industry that comes above this is McDonald’s. One of the reasons for the outrageous profit that comes from universities is the requirement that students purchase their meal plan while they live on campus. The consumer is given no choice, and these companies receive guaranteed dollars.

We also learned that the people working directly in the food industry, such as farmers who are below the poverty line, are the people who deal with the most food insecurity. Essentially, the supply chain works like this: The major food company exists, along with a vendor like Tyson that provides the chicken, and the university that needs the chicken. The major food company receives kickbacks from the vendor, which is money that Tyson sends to ensure they stay on the preferred vendors list. Then, the university has to send the major company compliance numbers (paper work that ensures the right amount of everything is being sent, etc) in order for the major food company to see that everything is under control. Small farmers cannot compete with this sort of financial game and cannot pay kickbacks. They also suffer from other monetary pressures that come with maintaining a farm such as equipment and labor. Under capitalism, they are involuntary working against fast food companies, Sodexo, and the GMO industry. All these forces push on the small farmer until they are squished, leaving them unable to pay their workers proper wages and other detrimental factors that force them to fold their farm or sell it to a bigger company.

That evening, before a dinner that was a catered meal of vegan stir fry, steamed rice, and sumptuous chocolate pomegranate chia seed pudding, we participated in a dialogue about oppression. Oppression, as defined in the conference, is a “dynamic where one group of people is seen as less than, is treated as less than, and receives less access to resources historically and over time.” There is interpersonal oppression, institutional oppression, and cultural oppression. One particular of the discussion that has reverberated in our minds since the conversation is the idea that our food system is not broken. It is not broken because it is a system built on the oppression of other people, particularly slave labor. This is especially important to understand because since the system is not broken, it cannot be fixed. Instead, an entirely new system must be created which emphasizes equality without minimizing individuality. We then discussed how to combat oppression through 7 different strategies: A better system can be created through creating an education that does not glorify one group but instead focuses on history as a whole, as well as with self work, naming (the elimination of slurs in everyday vocabulary), disruption (protests, rallies, etc.), organizing, ally-ship, and the gathering of communities.

The following morning we were served a warm apple crisp as we delved into the discussion on what the Real Food Campus Commitment was. The Real Food Campus Commitment is the:

  • Implementation of 20 percent Real Food by the year 2020
  • Completion the real food calculator
  • Creation of a Food System’s Working Group of students, staff, food service members, farmers, and community members
  • Institutionalization of a real food policy
  • Creation of a better food education.

what is real foodReal food is defined to be fair trade, ecologically sound (USDA organic and third party verified), local (two hundred and fifty mile radius both farm and distribution), and humane (no high fructose corn syrup, no dyes, no caramel coloring).

Now, in order to get these ideas implemented on campus, we discussed strategies to get the administration on board. We discussed mobilizing students, building a coalition, organizing decision makers, and strategies. What this movement needs to be is a campaign, and not a project. There has to be a target we are aiming for, a person such as the president of the university, that we want to take notice of our actions. All the while, it is important to create allies, whether they are active or passive, and not active or passive opponents.

During the retreat, we got the wonderful opportunity to visit Northwestern University and work with their Real Food Challenge campaign team, acquiring signatures on a petition that will be given to their President. We found that almost every person we got the opportunity to explain the idea of Real Food Challenge was more than willing to sign the petition. As a whole, we managed to garner nearly 350 signatures during the hour we spent outside. This field trip gave us hope that this radical movement can be accomplished.

Once back at the church, we were greeted with the aroma of coconut butternut squash soup. A big pot full was steaming on the counter beckoning our ladles. We topped our bowls roasted squash seeds and scraped the remnants of the soup from our bowls with delicious bread. We debriefed our time at Northwestern during dinner, confirming our excited suspicions that change was among us. We said goodbye to our new friends and squeezed our bodies into the small white car. Our bellies were content along with our spirits for we now knew what needs to be done, how to approach it, plan it and attack it so that we can tear down the previous food system and carefully build it back up the Real way.