5 Myths about the Real Food Challenge

By Olivia PeñaRFClogo

We see the pledge all over campus at the University of Vermont—20% Real Food by 2020. It’s indicated in dining halls across campus, advertised on the tables on which we eat, researched in food systems courses, and the guiding principle behind almost half of the food at Brennan’s Pub. However, despite the vast amounts of outreach regarding UVM’s commitment to a more sustainable on-campus food system, many students and university members are unfamiliar with what exactly our Real Food Challenge pledge signifies. Many misconceptions exist throughout campus surrounding the vow to increased food that is ecologically sound, fair, humane, and local. Here are some myths that circulate throughout the campus concerning University of Vermont’s commitment to real food.

Myth # 1:  “If most of our food isn’t “real,” what are we eating?!”

Some may mock the commitment by saying “80% Fake Food by 2020.” The purpose of the Real Food Challenge is to bring more food to campus that is truly wholesome and beneficial for our bodies, our communities, and our environment. The prevailing food that exists within not only our campus food system, but also our national food system, is conventional food that doesn’t always take into consideration the environmental effects of the production methods, the health and worth of the workers, the local economy, and the welfare of animals. While a large percentage of the food we are eating is in fact food that at some point came from the Earth, it does not truly sustain the consumers, the producers, the communities, and our planet in the long run. To differentiate foods that do support these values, the word “real” is used to include products that meet local, sustainable, fair, and humane criteria.

Myth # 2:     “The Real Food Challenge is a program created by UVM Dining.”

The Real Food Challenge is a national student campaign that targets colleges and universities to play a role in changing the food system. In 2009, students at University of Vermont and other pilot institutions across the country began auditing campus food purchases using a calculator to determine how much food on campus was “real.” With this calculator, students were able to understand the current percentage of real food available on campus. After taking into account a variety of factors, the Real Food Challenge national campaign decided on a goal of 20% real food by 2020. They created a Real Food Campus Commitment and advocated for university presidents to sign on to the pledge. In March 2012, UVM became the fifth school in the nation to join this venture on the road to more real food on campus—driven by the values and beliefs of students. Now, UVM students are implementing the campus commitment by taking lead roles in continuing the audit process, researching new product opportunities, and advising UVM Dining on purchasing priorities as members of the Real Food Working Group.

Myth # 3:     “Real Food is more expensive”

Some on-campus consumers are quick to point out that the food at Brennan’s, the on-campus pub focused on real food, is relatively more expensive than other retail locations. This is sometimes true off campus too—if one compares a locally produced organic product to that of a big-brand product, they may notice a higher ticket on the former. This concept is due to externalized costs. Food that is not real may have lower prices at the supermarket because the production methods were used to cut corners; processes by which communities, the planet, the economy, and producers may be harmed. For example, a standard apple produced in a South American country is sold at a supermarket for a relatively low price—what a bargain! The large corporation selling said apple was able to keep prices down by using quick growing methods by way of harmful chemical inputs and unfair, underpaid labor wages. Thus, our health, society, and planet feel the costs in other ways such as poor local economies, global warming, contaminated waterways, and increased health issues. Real Food internalizes many costs, so it can be more expensive. However, it should be taken into consideration that many real food products are actually cost-competitive with their conventional counterparts.

Myth # 4:     “If a product has the name “Vermont” in the title, it must be local”

Not quite. The Real Food Challenge follows a rigorous set of qualifications for a product to count as real. Local can be one of the more confusing qualifications: a local product must contain more than 50% ingredients sourced within 250 miles of campus (for example, this means that bread made by a local bakery with flour grown in the Midwest doesn’t qualify). In addition, the business itself must be independently own, and have total control and decision-making power about their business practices. Finally, the privately-traded or cooperatively owned company must make less than 1% of the industry leader. With this set of qualifications, a local product means that not only were the food miles shorter than a non-local product, but it also contributes to the local economy by circulating capital to local, small scale producers —benefiting communities and recycling dollars throughout the area.

Myth # 5:     “It’s simple to procure real food—why aren’t we at 20% yet?”

UVM is a large institution with many individuals to feed, and UVM Dining purchases vast quantities of food from many different producers and companies. To rapidly shift from conventional food to real food would result in a sizeable increase in food prices on campus in a short time frame. That is why the name of the commitment speaks for itself: the Real Food Challenge. It is exciting, but hard, to make these product shifts. However, as more individuals get involved and learn more about UVM’s commitment and the potential to make change, this grassroots movement can gain even more momentum and push for increased presence of real food on campus. Through education and advocacy, the Real Food Challenge assists the UVM community to have the opportunity to strive for truly nourishing food for our health and well-being, our communities, and the planet.

Want to learn more? Visit uvm.edu/realfood.

Posted in: Economic, Environmental, Health, Social, UVM.