College campuses commit to the Real Food Challenge

One hundred and forty universities, including Johns Hopkins, Brown, University of California at Berkeley, Indiana University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, have signed onto the Real Food Challenge, measuring and reporting on the amount of sustainably-produced food served on campus. And 22 universities pledge to raise the proportion of "real food" served to 20 percent, 30 percent or 40 percent of their populations by 2020.

A majority of students say they consider an institution's level of sustainability in their decision on where to attend college, says the Real Food Challenge, a student organization that spans more than 300 campuses.

The group has developed an online calculator where schools aggregate thousands of food purchasing records and assess their 'real food' score. Student researchers then grade products against a comprehensive set of third party-verified standards for local, fair, ecologically sound and humane food. When completed, The Real Food Calculator shows how a school is doing and how they can improve.

Over 600 student researchers have reviewed 84,297 products and $71 million worth of campus food purchases.

"Using the calculator, I can now tell you that 81 percent of my school's seafood comes from sustainable fisheries. And we now know that, compared to other universities, we could source more fair trade items, such as rice - the item we buy the most of," says Anna Hankins, a freshman at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

Founded in 2008, the goal of the Real Food Challenge is to shift $1 billion in university food spending away from industrial agriculture and junk food and towards local, fair, ecologically sound, and humanely produced food - 'real food.'

Massachusetts' Hampshire College, long known for progressive leadership, has decided to see if it can source 100 percent of the food served on campus locally.

In May, California approved a sustainable food policy that requires the entire 23-campus system to source at least 20 percent of food from local farms and businesses that meet the Real Food Challenge, impacting $100 million spent on food.

According to the 2014 Locavore Index, Vermont leads the country on local food for the third consecutive year.

"This ranking reflects the commitment Vermonters make to community based agriculture," says Chuck Ross, Vermont's Secretary of Agriculture, Food and Markets. "From the farm and food system entrepreneurs who are providing local foods, to the schools and institutions that are stepping up to integrate local foods, to the individual Vermonters who are making healthy, local choices, our state has embraced a systems approach to agriculture."

Building a Regional Food System

And that needs to extend to all of New England, says a report by American Farmland Trust, Conservation Law Foundation and Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Working Group.

Although Maine ranks No. 2 and New Hampshire No. 3 on the Locavore index, the region has lost 300,000 acres of farmland in the last 30 years. About half of the dairy consumed is produced locally, less than 40 percent of vegetables, 10 percent of fruit, and 1 percent of meat, according to New England Food Policy: Building A Sustainable Food System.

Top image of buffet trays by hxdbzxy via Shutterstock