The Real Food Challenge, a national, student led organization dedicated to building a just and sustainable food system, marked a real victory for students last week when it signed an agreement with Sodexo, the second largest food service company in the world, that puts in place a rigorous and comprehensive set of standards for evaluating Sodexo’s suppliers.
“Having real transparency is an important part of creating a more just food system,” David Schwartz, one of the co-founders and the campaign director of the Real Food Challenge, told me in an email interview the other day. “And for students, who are often forced to buy into university meal plan, it’s crazy to not know or have the right to know what you’re putting in your body. So this agreement also reflects a major win for student power,” he continued.
Under the agreement, Sodexo, which provides food to about six hundred U.S. college and university campuses, will now collaborate with the Real Food Challenge to assess the the social responsibility and sustainability of its vendors and food producers. Since its founding in 2008, the Real Food Challenge has set its sights on shifting 20%, or about $1 billion, of college and university food purchases to local, sustainable, humane and fair trade sources by the year 2020. With over $35 million of annual university food committed to buying from sustainable sources, and Real Food Challenge outposts on more than 370 campuses in over 40 states, that’s a lot of purchasing power.
“Transparency and sustainability go hand-in-hand. Increasing transparency is something we want to model for this generation of interested consumers and for our industry. Working with the Real Food Challenge is great way to do just that,” said Sodexo spokesperson, Stephen Cox.
“We are happy to work with Sodexo to increase transparency and accountability in our food system,” said Anim Steel, who co-founded the Real Food Challenge’s with Schwartz and is the organization’s executive director. “Building a truly just and sustainable food system requires a real respect for the rights and needs of this younger generation and a real commitment to transparency all along the supply chain – from seed to plate. Together, we can lead the food industry away from a model driven exclusively by profit, secrecy and the factory farm, and towards a one based on respect for human rights, the environment, and the health of our children for generations to come.”
Sodexo and campus leaders will use the Real Food Calculator, a tool designed by food experts and Real Food Challenge student researchers to track and assess institutional food purchases. The calculator lays out four key criteria areas for evaluating ‘real food’: local & community-based, fair, ecologically sound and humane, and according to the organization, it plays a crucial role in guiding schools’ transition to reach its 20% by 2020 goal.
So What’s next for the Real Food Challenge?
“We’ve got to get Aramark and Chartwells to sign similar agreements! We’re not letting them off the hook,” Schwartz assured me. “Then on to bigger and better things. Students continue to discuss and plan for future campaigns both locally on their campuses and nationally, targeting the “Big 3″ food service companies.”
To that end, Schwartz is on the road this week raising awareness and taking action to try to get Aramark on board the Real Food Challenge’s efforts.
“For students, I think it offers a sense of hope and possibility–a recognition of our collective power; that when we organize we can get things done. There seems to be a lot of focus on Farm Bill and the federal government, when it comes to big changes. That said, if you look at who has real power in the food system, it’s the big buyers,” Schwartz said. “If we develop new ways of exerting leverage over these corporate entities and continuing to hold them accountable over time, we can have a major impact on the food system.”
Want to know more about the real Food Challenge? Take a look at this video:
Photo courtesy of the Real Food Challenge