Campus Dining's new labels aim to increase sustainability

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Occidental Campus Dining incorporated a new labeling system in the Marketplace on Sept. 18 to increase students’ awareness of food justice and sustainability efforts. The small, multi-colored labels—such as one near the salad bar mixed greens reading “RFC compliant: 250 miles”—indicate which options qualify as “real food” based on the Real Food Challenge (RFC) criteria.

The RFC is a national campaign that encourages colleges and universities to sign the Real Food Campus Commitment, a pledge to buy at least 20 percent “real food” annually by 2020. The RFC defines “real food” as food that comes from suppliers who pledge to strengthen local economies, respect human rights, ensure ecological sustainability and involve and educate their communities.

“By highlighting locally-grown and organic food, we’re hoping people will pick those items more,” Campus Dining intern Dylan Bruce (junior) said. “The hope is that it will bolster our buying power for sustainable food.”

According to Bruce, Occidental began following the RFC guidelines in 2008 and works to provide food from local (within a 250-mile radius), certified organic, fair trade, humane and ecologically sound suppliers. Having already reached 15 percent real food, the school is in jeopardy of not reaching the RFC goal due to lack of interest from students. Bruce leads a team of Campus Dining interns in an effort to publicize Occidental’s participation in the RFC and increase student demand for “real food.”

“We can only buy as much organic and local food as students will buy,” Bruce said.

According to Associate Director of Hospitality Services Amy Munoz, each student’s food choices are important because Campus Dining can track sales to determine the popularity of certain food items and long-term trends.

“The way we do our meal plans allows students to vote with their meal plan dollars,” Munoz said. “If they see something that meets the RFC criteria, maybe they will buy more of it, and that will facilitate our goal of purchasing more real food.”

Bruce has found it difficult to convince Campus Dining to purchase more sustainable food when, based on analysis by Campus Dining, the portion of organic and local food is a relatively low percentage of total sales. The inadequate demand makes Campus Dining hesitant to invest in the five percent more real food that Occidental needs to sign the RFC commitment.

Anna Misenti (sophomore) and Charlotte Selters (senior) said that they buy whatever food looks appetizing—the RFC labels would not influence their decision unless they had to choose between the RFC-certified and non-certified version of the same food.

But Food Justice House’s resident adviser Grace Bender (senior) believes the labels will make an appreciable impact, even if only a small fraction of students notice them.

“Any person who takes an extra moment to consider the larger implications of their meal is a step in the right direction,” Bender said.

According to Bruce, the unwillingness of students to try new food is one of the biggest road blocks in achieving the RFC goal. He said that students generally avoid unusual foods in the Marketplace, such as aromatic eggplant and white fish, even though they are sustainable alternatives to popular menu items.

“An example of where our sustainable push fell through in a way was last Earth Day,” Bruce said. “We had local organic artichokes, house-made aioli and humane meat, but no one knew how to eat an artichoke. I walked out on the Market Place patio and saw people stabbing at the artichokes with their forks.”

Bruce and his team strive to educate students on the importance and tastiness of sustainable food. Campus Dining now advertises weekly “Local Highlights” and displays supplier profiles next to local menu items and will serve full sustainable meals throughout October for Food Justice Month and extend the RFC labeling to the Tiger Cooler and the Green Bean. But, according to Bruce, no matter how much effort Campus Dining puts into increasing the supply of real food, it all comes down to how students want to spend their meal money.

“Part of returning to a culture of eating that is sustainable, seasonal and in touch with what the environment around us can actually support is getting used to some weirder stuff, like the artichokes,” he said.