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:
Photo courtesy of the Real Food Challenge