Students across the country have become aware of the powerful influence of food systems on our lives, and we have become active leaders in sustainable initiatives at our institutions, coordinating with local, organic, often small-scale family farms, so that we might feed ourselves and our neighbors with nutritious, fairly-traded, worker-friendly, community-supportive products. What we demand is Real Food: food that nourishes land, community, and people.
On Wednesday, one hundred and nine Democrats in Congress crossed party lines by voting in favor of the US-Peru Free Trade Agreement. The 2007 Farm Bill that awaits passage in the Senate doesn’t look so different from the corporate-friendly legislation of the past thirty years. And 1.3 million New York City residents are accessing emergency food programs, an increase of 24 percent since 2004. The student movement for Real Food has a lot of work to do.
Two weeks ago, many members of this movement felt we were each working alone, that we were constantly reinventing the wheel, struggling to raise public concern, and butting up against bureaucratic red tape and stifling No’s to many of our practical proposals. We loved our work – it’s a part of how we’ve decided to live, and it connects us with the people in our community, and the land we inhabit – but progress was slow. And our isolated ignorance of similar efforts at other schools was an obstacle we barely recognized.
One week ago, we closed the gaps. We came together. The Real Food Summit sent a rush of adrenaline through every student and non-student present. The event was a gathering of invaluable knowledge, dedication, accomplishment, and energy. The current of thrilled excitement we created at the Summit is flowing through all of us still.
The Real Food Summit brought together 145 students from 47 colleges and universities across the Northeast, as well as university and college staff, dining services employees, university professors, executive chefs, representatives of non-profit organizations, and various community members. John Turenne shared his stories and advice as a former Aramark Executive Chef, turned president of his consulting company Sustainable Food Systems. NYC City Farms Trainer Cecile Charles-King urged us to reach out, beyond our schools, to existing networks of community gardners and community-organized farmers markets. Chef (/Lawyer) Kate Adamick, president of Food Systems Solutions LLC, explained the need to write our demands into our institutions’ contracts, and assured us of our absolute right to set measures of accountability. General Manager of Bon Appetit Stuart Leckie explained his sustainable goals and efforts at Saint Joseph’s College. Gerardo Reyes-Chavez shared his history as a farm worker in Florida, and urged us to support the successful campaigns of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. Melina Shannon-Dipietro and Josh Viertel advised us from their experiences as Co-directors of the Yale Sustainable Food Project. Josh reminded us of the immense value of what we are doing, of devoting the energy and passion of our twenties to this work, of changing the food system in which we live.Whether in individual conversation, small workshop, or panel discussion, every guest and speaker at the Summit seemed nearly overwhelmed with the efforts and accomplishments of the students present. Each breakout session could have been led by any one of the 30-50 students in each room (and each, it was clear, would have shared an entirely different and eye-opening message). We created a neutral space in which all ideas were welcome, and conflicting perspectives productively merged. We each made mosaics with the RISD students, while our thoughts fit together for us to realize the greater whole we have become. We sang, we danced, we shared meals. We were comfortable together, we exchanged between us what each of us needed, and our thrilled excitement was contagious.
The Real Food Summit sent over a hundred students on their way home, coordinating and collaborating for the next move, the next project, the next result of the newest ideas. Each region represented at the Summit will be having their own meetings before the end of the year. Each of us is back at school, working hard, with the adrenaline of excitement in a support network we never knew we had.
The Real Food Summit was the kick-off event for The Real Food Challenge (website coming soon), an entity created by The Food Project in Boston that has set a goal to increase Real Food procured by university dining services by 20% in five years. That’s 20% of the $4 billion that the colleges and universities in the United States spend on food every year.Given the energy and the literally joyful dedication expressed at the Summit, I believe we will achieve this, and far more than such numbers can even convey.