Students have worked for years to bring responsibly sourced food to the dining hall at Fort Lewis College, and in the process, are learning the challenges of what it takes to shift an institution.
“The work is definitely really difficult,” said exercise science senior Aolani Peiper, who is coordinating the work.
The effort to change the food offerings at the college started in 2013 when FLC President Dene Thomas signed a Real Food Challenge commitment to purchase 20 percent “real food” by 2020. The national Real Food Challenge campaign defines “real food” as items that fit into one of four categories: local, organic, fair trade or humane. Across the country, 42 other colleges have committed to the goal.
To achieve the goal, students must work closely with local employees of Sodexo, a large multinational corporation. For the company and the students, the work can be challenging.
Students have had trouble keeping purchasing changes in place, in part because of staff turnover at Sodexo, Peiper said.
Sodexo is being asked to meet the goal while purchasing large quantities of food without increasing prices, said Gina Rios, general manager of campus dining.
“It’s our job to search for foods that we can shift without financial impact to the students,” she said.
Most of the food produced and distributed at the volume needed to serve 200,000 meals in an academic year does not fit the criteria of the challenge, said Rios, a Sodexo employee. But she said she is supportive of the goal.
“The beauty of the Real Food Challenge is in creating the market, awareness and usage that will shift production and availability of food away from conventional and towards real food,” she said in an email to The Durango Herald.
Many students partaking in Sodexo’s meals don’t have much choice because they live in the college’s residence halls. Students in the dorms are required to have meal plans because they do not have kitchens, said Lauren Savage, an FLC spokeswoman. Students pay between $2,167 and $2,541 per semester for a meal plan.
“You are just being fed whatever is on the menu,” said FLC student Kaidee Akullo, who works on the Real Food Challenge.
Akullo said she values the ability to choose local, sustainable and organic foods. Industrial food systems have harmed some communities, she said, for example the irresponsible use of pesticides that can cause cancer.
“There are certain people that are subjected to more harm because of the food system, and often those are communities of color,” she said.
Students working on the challenge are doubtful they can meet the 2020 deadline. But they have made progress and expect changes will continue to be made, Peiper said.
In 2015, Sodexo purchased 2 percent “real food,” Peiper said. During the 2017-18 school year, Sodexo hit 6 percent “real food” purchases, down from 7 percent in 2016-17 and below the 12 percent students had expected, she said.
To calculate FLC’s progress toward the goal, students compile Sodexo’s invoices from September and February and research what category of “real food” the products fit into, said FLC student Rebecca Reath.
In January, representatives from the Environmental Center, the Student Union Building and Sodexo signed a memorandum of understanding to outline policies around the Real Food Challenge. The MOU will apply to any company contracted with the college.
Peiper said she hopes the commitment creates greater accountability and helps preserve the changes in purchasing.
Sodexo’s priority is to purchase as much food as possible from the Old Fort Lewis campus near Hesperus, Rios said. In the 2018 calendar year, Sodexo purchased more than $29,000 worth of produce and meat from the Old Fort.
The frustrations faced by students working on the Real Food Challenge nationally are helping to lay a foundation for two new campaigns, Akullo said.
The Real Meals Campaign calls on Aramark, Compass Group and Sodexo – all three major companies that serve colleges – to purchase 25 percent “real food” for all the campuses they serve, Akullo said. It also calls on the campuses to reduce carbon emissions from animal production; invest in disenfranchised farmers, fishers and ranchers; and commit to timelines to reach the campaign’s goals.
Uprooted and Rising is also getting started to help educate the public nationally about the injustices in the food system, said Peiper, an intern for the group. Peiper, a native Hawaiian, witnessed some of the injustices firsthand while living close to an area where Monsanto used airborne chemicals on crops that made Hawaiians ill, she said.
“I’m really hoping we can gain a really solid base,” she said of the new movement.