The Real Food Challenge: How to Effect Social Change by Harnessing the Power of Students

This post is one in a series of profiles of the 2010 class of Echoing Green Fellows. Through its two-year fellowship program, Echoing Green provides start-up capital and technical assistance to young, emerging social entrepreneurs to help them launch their organizations and build capacity.

4.7 billion dollars. That’s the amount of money American colleges and universities spend each year on dining.

That’s a lot of purchasing power, and Anim Steel and David Schwartz are challenging students to harness that power and redirect it to real food — food that’s ethically produced and sustainable, local, fair trade, and organic.

Steel and Schwartz call it the Real Food Challenge, and some 4,000 students at 300 schools across the country have already signed on.

The initial goal: to shift 20 percent — about one billion dollars — of college and university food budgets to real food sources by the year 2020.

Taking the food movement to the next level

Steel, 38 and Schwartz, 24, first met eight years ago while working for The Food Project, a Boston-based non profit that does youth development through sustainable agriculture. They reconnected a few years later at a conference, and talked late into the night about food activism. 

“There was a movement emerging on college campuses and we knew we could do more if we connected it, united it, and amplified it,” Steel says, recalling the conversation that inspired them to take their idea to the next level.

Steel and Schwartz started by holding their own conference at Yale University in 2007. They called it “The Real Food Summit.” When over 150 students showed up, they knew their concept had traction. They launched the Real Food Challenge the next year, partnering with key leaders in the California Student Sustainability Coalition.

“The main point is to provide a stimulus for systems change in the whole food economy,” Steel explains. “We invest in leadership and the skills necessary to make change, and we support campaigns. The goal is to help students on their own individual campuses run a campaign that’s involved with policy change.”

When I ask Schwartz why they decided to hone in on college campuses, he speaks from experience. “I was one of those students myself. I was an undergraduate as we were starting the Real Food Challenge,” he tells me.

“For anyone who is worried about what’s going on with our food system, it’s hard not to be compelled when you’re looking at diabetes, obesity and diet-related disease skyrocketing and especially prevalent in low income communities and communities of color, when you look at the loss of farmland and the consolidation of farms. There’s a consciousness on college campuses around these issues,” says Schwartz, who graduated from Brown University in 2009 and now travels the country training students and expanding the Real Food Challenge’s student network.

“The power we have as students is profound. We’re not just learners, we’re engaged citizens and leaders,” he believes. “We can be so much more powerful if we act together, if we have a common language, a common platform.”

Young people at the heart of social change

And, as Steel explains, they’re inspired by history, and the belief that social change can’t happen without the involvement of young people. He points to the anti-apartheid movement in particular.

“When the student divestment movement gained steam – and in particular at the University of California — and students got the University of California to divest from South African holdings, Mandela himself attributed that to the tipping point for the end of apartheid. Certainly not the only factor, but it had an effect. So we know there are broader implications if students use their institutions well,” Steel says, adding: “We want to divest from industrial agriculture and use those dollars to invest in the kind of food economy that is better for the earth, better for our health, and better for the economy.”

Coincidentally, or who knows, maybe not, the entire University of California system has signed on to the Real Food Challenge and to achieving the goal of 20% by 2020 — and that’s given the organization a huge boost.

More than just a tastier meal

“I think sometimes people can look at it and say this is just about getting a tastier meal, but that’s not the whole picture,” Steel wants to make clear.

With a recent study on obesity showing that the current generation of kids could very well be the first in 200 years to live shorter lives than their parents, Steel and Schwartz have their work cut out for them.

“It’s good that college students may get better food, healthier food, fresher food,” Steel says. “That’s important. But the reason most students are into it is that they understand the role they have in creating change in the whole food economy so that everyone can eat better. And so that we can produce food more responsibly.”

Take a look at this video to learn more about the Real Food Challenge:

Related reading: 

Hold the Fries! USDA Calls to Raise Nutrition Standards in School Meals

Worldwatch Institute Launch of State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet

New FoodCorps Will Get Kids Into Food and Food Into Gardens


Photo courtesy of the Real Food Challenge


Carole R.
Carole R.4 years ago

Thanks for the post.

NGOZI OGAKWU5 years ago


Barbara Erdman
Barbara Erdman5 years ago

thanx for this article

Barbara Erdman
Barbara Erdman5 years ago

thanx for this article

Duncan O'neil
Duncan O'neil5 years ago


This isn't about "studentpower"! It is about that, but "Steel, 38 and Schwartz, 24, first met ... while working for The Food Project, a Boston-based non profit that does youth development through sustainable agriculture.", to use students to further their own agenda!

Duncan O'neil
Duncan O'neil5 years ago

So Lynn you think it is a good idea to replace corporate "bullies" with Government "bullies"?

How is that an improvement?

Sue M.
Sue Matheson5 years ago


Duncan O'neil
Duncan O'neil5 years ago

"10 cents/gal may be close if company has to BUY the crude oil, which most oil companies don't, they own it every step. CRUDE OIL ACCOUNTS FOR ABOUT 70% OF COST OF GAS. Sure changes that 10 cents/gal figure."

Here is data from the state of CA for this year! (10 Jan)
Distribution, marketing, & profits - $0.13
Crude Oil Cost - $2.18
Refinery cost & profit - $0.36
CA Undergrnd Strge Tank fee - $0.02
State & Local Sales Tax - $0.10
State Excise Tax - $0.35
Federal Excise Tax - $0.18

I am not guessing or modifying these figures. These are reported by the state. (

Duncan O'neil
Duncan O'neil5 years ago

"You say students had no say in food at home. Most are 18 or over @ college."
I am aware of that. Issue is they had no choice when they were under the parents roof. By the time they get to college their eating patterns were set. As an adult I had occasion to put in some time at an USAF basic school base. I observed the new recruits in the mess eat hamburgers at every meal, regardless of what was offered.

"10 cents/gal may be close if company has to BUY the crude oil, which most oil companies don't, they own it every step. CRUDE OIL ACCOUNTS FOR ABOUT 70% OF COST OF GAS. Sure changes that 10 cents/gal figure."
This is different in modern times!. Most oil fields are owned by the home country. I will post a breakdown of data published by CA.

"Forbes magazine published what the top U.S. corporations paid in taxes last year.... Big Oil giant Exxon Mobil, which last year reported a record $45.2 billion profit, paid the most taxes of any corporation, but none of it went to the IRS:"
Because they over paid the year before!

A: Taxpayers - you & me. You OK w/ that? I'm "
Thank you! But that is actually an incomplete answer. Must include "customers".

Duncan O'neil
Duncan O'neil5 years ago

"You can not improve the American diet if you allow the Fed , the FDA, the WHO World Homocide Organisation}to dictate through the S510 legislatron what people can or can not eat"

But it is perfectly rational to allow a group with an agenda to force their choice on people?