Real Food Challenge Retreat Write-Up

Written by Chloe Graffeo and Rachel Komich

We arrived at a Unity Lutheran church in Chicago around 1:30 a.m. on Friday, January 23 and promptly sought out any open space on the basement floor to sprawl our sleeping bags for a few hours of rest before morning. Around 8 o’clock 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, we gathered in a small room and sat criss-crossed on the floor for our first leadership workshop. The workshop picked apart the meaning of power, first by taking a look at its most simple definition: “to be able to do”. This means 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 to do so. 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 made from locally sourced lettuce, we went straight into a workshop about the food industry. We learned that seventy percent of campus dining is outsourced and thirty percent of universities are self-operated. Of the seventy percent of universities that outsource campus dining, three major companies control 90% of the business. These companies are Sodexo, Compass Group, and Aramark, and together they make up a 20 billion dollar industry. To put this into perspective, the only industry to make as high of a profit is McDonald’s, and they are about a 28 billion dollar industry. Universities achieve such outrageous profits by requiring students to purchase a 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 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 sends the major company compliance numbers (paper work that ensures the right amount of everything is sent, etc.) so the major food company sees that everything is under control. Small farmers cannot compete with this sort of financial game as they 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 involuntarily working against fast food companies, Sodexo, and the GMO industry. All these forces push on the small farmer until he is squished, leaving him unable to pay his workers proper wages and keep up with technological innovations that would improve the farm, which ultimately force him to fold his farm or sell it to a bigger company.

That evening before a dinner, 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 part of the discussion that has stuck in our minds is the idea that our food system is not broken; rather, 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 that emphasizes equality without minimizing individuality. We then discussed how to combat oppression through seven different strategies: a better system can be created by forming an education that does not glorify one group but instead focuses on history as a whole, as well as with self work (creating a greater self-awareness), 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 the Real Food Campus Commitment. Real food is defined by the Real Food Challenge organization as 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). Our mission as students, then, is the:

  • Implementation of 20% real food by the year 2020
  • Completion of 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.

Now, in order to get these ideas implemented on campus, we discussed strategies to get the administration on board. We considered mobilizing students, building a coalition, organizing decision makers, and other approaches. This movement needs to be a campaign, not a project. There has to be a target to aim 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 discourage 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 to give to their President. We found that almost every person we got the opportunity to explain the idea of the challenge to was more than willing to sign the petition. As a whole, we managed to garner nearly 350 signatures during the hour we spent outside. The 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 with roasted squash seeds and scraped the remnants of the soup up with delicious bread. We discussed our time at Northwestern during dinner, reaffirming our excited suspicions that change was among us.   We said goodbye to our new friends and squeezed our bodies into the small white car we borrowed from the university. Our bellies were content along with our spirits, for we now knew what needed to be done, how to approach it, plan it and attack it so we could tear down the previous food system and carefully build it back up the Real way, with whole, hearty, ethical foods for everyone to enjoy.

Special thanks to the Voinovich School, the Office of Sustainability and the Food Studies Curricular Theme for funding and supporting Food Matters on our way toward creating this coalition at Ohio University.

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