You walk into your dining hall, hungry after a long day of classes and meetings. Although the lines are long due to the inevitable 6pm rush, you decide to stick it out and remain on line to get the warm food. Finally making your way to the front, you get a piece of grilled chicken, some broccoli, and mashed potatoes with a salad on the side. Perfectly balanced and healthy dinner, right? Maybe not. The meal you are about to eat may be genetically modified, industrially produced food.
Well, there goes your appetite.
Many universities, Boston College included, are not dedicated to purchasing all real food, a term used to denote the intersection of several food movements such as just, local, sustainable, organic, humane, and fair trade. This is where the student organization Real Food BC comes in.
As an affiliation of the national project Real Food Challenge, Real Food BC was founded in November 2007 when BC signed an intercollegiate pledge to promote sustainable food practices nation-wide and transformed what was the Asian-themed “Tamarind” into The Loft at Addie’s, a small eatery offering food from local, sustainable sources. Currently, there are over 200 members (affectionately referred to as “real foodies”) on the club’s listserv who focus their efforts on cooking, gardening, and activism in the hopes of getting 20 percent of the entire Boston College dining hall budget dedicated to purchasing local and sustainable foods.
Real Food BC’s fully functioning garden on Brighton campus was started in the spring of 2008. Although it has to be put to bed for the winter, during the growing season (late April to late October), club members garden once a week in addition to setting up a watering schedule to make sure the garden is never too dry.
“On garden days we’ll do weeding, planting, harvesting, and any other odds and ends that need to get done,” explains Kitty Sargent, a junior at Boston College and an active member of Real Food BC. “In the spring and fall we’ll grow hardier crops like greens (kale, arugula, lettuce, tomatoes) and roots (radishes, turnips, beets). During the summer we stick to the tried and true classics like tomatoes, summer squash and zucchini, peppers, onions, basil, and eggplant. We also grow a large amount of herbs throughout the growing season like oregano, mint, lavender, chives, sage, and parsley. When deciding what to plant when, the biggest thing to keep in mind is temperatures; greens can handle a frost better than tomatoes, for example.”
In order to spread awareness about the real food movement, club members have organized events such as “Let’s Talk About (And Eat) Food” complete with Sweetgreen samples as well as excerpts from the documentary Food, Inc. They also organized an event in conjunction with Equal Exchange Partner: “Get Your Fair Trade Fix: Coffee & Chocolate.”
In addition to mobilizing the student body through such events, Real Food BC has approached Boston College’s self-operated dining service about the prospect of working together; the problem, however, is a lack of consistency.
“… For [dining] it’s an issue of scale because they need a consistent product across the board, and we wouldn’t be able to give them a steady stream of product,” explains Sargent. For this reason, “currently, the only people who get food from the garden are people who come and help out. If you work, you get a share of the harvest.”
While working to mobilize the student body and persuade Boston College to take a larger share in the Real Food Movement, Sargent has noticed an overall generational shift in the way college-age students approach food.
“… When people learn about the benefits of local and/or organic food, they generally seem to have a reaction of ‘well why don’t we do that here?’… The shift has occurred on a small scale at BC, and I think people are ready to hear about the benefits of local/organic/sustainable.”
Wondering exactly what these benefits are? According to Strolling of the Heifers, a Vermont-based local food advocacy group, local food spends less time in transit from farm to plate, and, as a result, is more nutritious, fresher, and better tasting. Additionally, local food is good for the soil because it encourages diversification of local agriculture, reducing the reliance on monoculture while also supporting local farms and food producers.
When it comes to organic food consumption, the benefits are just as numerous. In fact, a Rodale News article reported that organic food is 48 percent lower in poisonous metals such as cadmium, a toxic compound found in certain fertilizers that has been linked to occurrences of breast cancer and kidney stones. Furthermore, according to an article published in the Huffington Post, a Newcastle University study on organic versus conventional crops revealed that organic farming methods result in as much as 60 percent higher levels of antioxidants (linked to a lower risk of cancer) and lower levels of pesticides at the same calorie level. According to the same study, organic foods also have a 6 percent higher level of flavones, which are associated with a lower risk of stroke.
“This study is telling a powerful story of how organic plant-based foods are nutritionally superior and deliver bona fide health benefits,” explains Dr. Charles Benbrook, professor at Washington State University’s Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources and co-author of the study.
Concerns for locally and organically produced foods are just two ingredients in the larger and more complex “real food” recipe.
“Real food encompasses a concern for producers, consumers, communities, and the earth,” the Real Food Challenge website notes. “We use this term to recognize that both the food system and the food movement must encompass and embrace a diversity of foci; ‘real food’ represents a common ground where all relevant issues from human rights to environmental sustainability can converge. Some people call it ‘local,’ ‘green,’ ‘slow,’ or ‘fair.’ We use ‘Real Food” as a holistic term to bring together many of these diverse ideas people have about a values-based food economy.
Are you up for the real food challenge? To learn more, check out these ways to get involved in the movement. And for all my fellow BC eagles out there, email firstname.lastname@example.org to get involved with the real food movement on campus.