The College Cafeteria Revolution
By Kelsey Meagher, UC Davis
I find it hard to believe it’s only taken one or two generations for most Americans to lose touch with the source of their food.
Members of my parents’ generation grew up thinking the meat in their burger came from a small ranch instead of a Concentrated Animal Feedlot Operation and likely hadn’t even heard of a CAFO. Fifty years ago, it’s likely that one of their parents or grandparents farmed or raised livestock. But over the years, the number of farmers has steadily decreased and the ones that are left are getting older, with the median age now around 55.
A lot can change in a generation and many college students like me who are coming of age today have several reasons for concern. Food production has become invisible, but the health consequences of sugary, salty pre-packaged food have not. Obesity is now affecting one in four children and diabetes is a way of life for one in 10 Americans.
It’s time for a change and young people are leading the charge. In Sacramento and San Francisco, they’re flocking to plant potatoes and kale in urban patches of dirt. Kids from Elk Grove and Roseville are training to be farmers at places like the Center for Land Based Learning in Winters. In Oakland, teens are part of a movement to provide fresh produce in neighborhoods where liquor stores have traditionally ruled. And then there’s the thousands of college students like me devoting their time to cafeterias across the country,
Cafeterias, you ask? The home of cinematic food fights, uncomfortable silences, and the “freshman 10” – pound weight gain?
You heard right. Cafeterias don’t evoke outrageous images of injustice, but they have serious power to prompt change. In the U.S., more than 4,000 institutions of higher education spend close to $5 billion annually on food. Behind the millions of college food trays of lasagna, burgers and broccoli lies a whole network of ranches and farms. But the way they raise their livestock and crops – whether by using a host of pesticides and chemical fertilizers, or by using the most sustainable farm practices possible – sure isn’t visible when you’re looking at your lunch.
That’s why I got involved in the Real Food Challenge (realfoodchallenge.org), a national student movement asking administrators to purchase “real food,” which we define as ecologically sound, community-based, humane to animals and fair to laborers. This way, we can know the types of farm practices that our college dollars are supporting.
We’re already making progress. At the University of California at Irvine where I was an undergraduate, we introduced the Real Food Calculator in our dining halls. When we discovered that UCI purchased less than 10 percent "real" food, we helped pass a policy requiring them to purchase 20 percent sustainable food by 2015.
Then, by joining with RFC activists around the state, we did the impossible and encouraged the entire University of California system to agree to shift 20 percent of its food purchases at all 10 ten campuses to “real food” by 2020.
On Nov. 9 -10, we’ll be part of “Making the Invisible Visible,” a conference organized by the Agricultural Sustainability Institute at UC Davis. It’s bringing young college activists together with leading academics who have formed a new network for food, agriculture and sustainability with a major gift from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Together, we’ll look at the many steps that are needed to change current farming practices, food distribution and access.
We’ll embark on several food system tours, and interact with students at Grant Union High School who have created a student garden and kitchen program to tackle neighborhood food access challenges. We’ll meet with young farmers in Capay Valley to learn how they balance their love of growing organic vegetables and greens with slim profit margins and 10-hour days.
We hope the conference will further cement ties between our youth food movement and the established agricultural research world, so we can shake up the conventional wisdom around agricultural research and education in the US. By bringing young and old together, the conference will empower us to keep fighting for food justice.
The Real Food Challenge has ambitious plans to bring sustainable food to cafeterias at college campuses nationwide. Our goal? To direct at least $1 billion in annual college food budgets to “real food” within 10 years.
It won’t happen overnight, but we’re encouraged by the surge of youthful energy flowing to the food justice movement. Starting with our own college cafeterias, we can create a more just and humane food system. This way, the next generation will know that the bread and broccoli that nourish them are also nourishing our planet and people.
Kelsey Meagher is a graduate student in the Sociology Department at UC Davis, where she is studying agriculture and the environment.