Real Food on Campus

David Beriss
University of New Orleans

Are student activists transforming campus dining? And, if they succeed, what are the implications for the way Americans think about food?

We recently posted an article by Bonnie May, David Burley and Kellen Gilbert, of Southeastern Louisiana University, about efforts by students there to convince their university administration and Aramark (their food service contractor) to source more food locally. They have been building ties to local farmers, organizing a farmers market on campus and working to get Aramark to stock the campus salad bar with local produce. However, Aramark actively resisted these ideas and even took actions that undermined the students’ and farmers’ efforts. Even though SLU is located in a very productive agricultural region, with a long growing season and many farmers eager to work with the university, students eating on campus have very little access to local food.

This is true on university campuses all over the country. But there has also been a great deal of student activism around food, resulting in a growing commitment to local food by some colleges and universities. In perhaps the biggest move in this direction, the California State University system announced this week that 20% of the food on its 23 campuses will, by 2020, meet the standards of the Real Food Challenge (visit the site for details on those standards). The Cal State system is very large, with 447,000 students and 45,000 faculty and staff, spending over $100 million annually on food. This could prove to be a big enough move to catch the attention of companies like Aramark. One of Aramark’s competitors, a company called Bon Appetit, already promotes itself as providing a sustainable alternative food service. Their presence on campuses is probably evidence of successful student activism.

The movement for “real food” on campuses is more complicated than simply sourcing food from local producers. Students, faculty, and staff on campuses around the United States have long debated the quality of the food provided by food services. This has included an interest in food perceived to be healthier than had been offered in the past. But activists have also pushed for food that is more environmentally sustainable, which can mean a lot of different things, including local sourcing of ingredients. It might include food that reflects the local culinary culture, for example. Some have suggested cooperating with local restaurateurs, caterers, and food truck operators to increase the variety of dining options on campus and to encourage local business development. Organizing students to grow food on campus has also been a popular idea.

What does this all mean? It might be tempting to suggest that this is merely a kind of consumerist fight. After all, college is expensive and students are the customers. If they don’t like what they are getting, they have a right to demand something else. Yet that is not really how the fight is framed. Rather, students involved in these campaigns draw on ideas about health, about the environment, fairness (to workers, farmers, and fishers) and about local business. The movement is clearly connected with food activism in other segments of American society. It may represent a challenge to the corporate logic that has come to dominate higher education in recent years.

It would be interesting to hear from SAFN members about their experiences of student food activism. Is food a target for student activism where you work?

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Filed under agriculture, economics, farming, food activism, students

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