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Old Baldy, Canada | photo by Cameron Schaus

Dear Ventana Chapter members,
Welcome Carolyn Hinman, a student at California State University at Monterey Bay (CSUMB) who will be writing a blog about projects and updates in the Environmental Studies program for our website. Her first article is about the Real Food Challenge (RFC) which is the largest student-led food movement in the country.

The Real Food Challenge Program at CSUMB

June 2016

By Carolyn Hinman

Say what you will about millennials, the Cal State Monterey Bay class of 2016 is full of forward-thinking twenty-somethings determined to make a difference. Each graduating senior must design, execute, and present a Capstone Project - CSUMB's answer to the senior thesis. For the Environmental Studies program, these projects ranged from studying food distribution to schools and universities, to the effect of temperature on fresh produce quality, to a Locke-Paddon Pond aeration project, to an examination of marine debris and street litter near Monterey Bay.

We would like to highlight an issue studied at CSUMB that weaves together our $4 billion dollar agricultural industry with improving sustainable food supplies locally.

At the forefront of any environmentalist's mind is the sustainable growing and distribution of food. It's no secret that global warming is taking its toll on the availability of water for farmers, and we are feeling the effects of that lack here in the nation's salad bowl. Stephanie Yee saw this quiet crisis percolating in the Monterey Bay, and decided to do something about it. She partnered with the CSUMB dining services and the Real Food Challenge to address the food system at CSUMB.

The Real Food Challenge (RFC) is the largest student-led food movement in the country. They champion just and sustainable food systems starting at the youth and university level. The overarching goal is to reallocate $1 billion of university food budgets currently being spent on corporate industrial farms and processed junk food to more locally-grown, sustainable, humane, ecologically-sound, and fair food sources by the year 2020. Stephanie Yee's initiative was instrumental in securing the commitment of the CSUMB dining services to join the challenge.

As part of her project, Stephanie and her partner, Teepian Yu, assessed over 4,600 items being used by the CSUMB dining services based on two months of spending over the past year. After 55 hours of research, combing through receipts and working with the Real Food Challenge Food Calculator, Yee and Yu discovered that a meager 4% of the food provided at CSUMB meets the RFC standards for what constitutes real food. The RFC definition of "real food" is, "food which truly nourishes producers, consumers, communities and the earth. It is a food system--from seed to plate--that fundamentally respects human dignity and health, animal welfare, social justice and environmental sustainability. 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." With CSUMB's commitment to sustainability and environmental stewardship, the goals of the Real Food Challenge should be high on the university's list of priorities.

Sodexo is the current provider of on-campus vending and other food services, and has been cooperative in working with Yee on her project. The company has acknowledged the necessity of making changes, and it is now up to the dining commons to follow through with the agreements they have made to follow the Monterey Bay seafood watch guide and bring more local produce to CSUMB's table. In a region defined by agriculture, this should not be too tall an order. Stephanie says that while the dining commons was disappointed to hear that their purchasing history was out of line with RFC standards, they are encouraged to meet with her in the fall to discuss aligning their purchasing standards with those laid down by RFC.

We tend to think about the cost of our food when we are swiping our credit cards in the checkout line. The price of the food we eat is actually much more expensive than our monthly statements indicate. We tend to forget that these products often travel hundreds or thousands of miles to get to our shopping carts. There is oil involved, there is water being used. There are workers being paid pennies a day to do back-breaking labor. There are carbon emissions and rain forests being cleared to make room for ever more unsustainable and destructive farming practices. The cost of our food is monetary, to be sure, but have you ever stopped to consider the human, animal, and environmental price tag of bringing your weekly groceries home?

Stephanie was most surprised by the enormity of the corporations from which the school purchases products, and that their reach is far more all-encompassing than she had realized. "Our dining service is part of a large corporation that buys from other large businesses. Sodexo gets kickbacks from purchasing from other sanctioned big corporations, like Tyson Farms. Most of the time these deals aren't made publicly available and the kickback money doesn't go back to the campus."

Stephanie has taken her passion for bringing real food to CSUMB to a more practical level too. She is the founder of the campus Food Advocates for Real Meals (FARM) club. The club provides students with a way to look at the food system in a more systematic and holistic way, rather than just focusing on pesticides or GMOs. The purpose of the club is to create a food justice culture on campus by bringing different sustainability clubs together to work on projects to build momentum, resources, and student input regarding on-campus dining. Yee hopes that FARM club will have a positive influence on the sustainability of food production and availability at CSUMB and Monterey Bay at large. "It's a good entry point for students to learn about different aspects of the food system and develop language and skills to talk to dining services and administration in a way that will be taken seriously." FARM club and Stephanie's work with the Real Food Challenge are providing an opportunity to groom future food, social, and environmental justice leaders for Central California and beyond.

Students at CSUMB have vision, passion, and plans for raising awareness of environmental issues and making real, lasting, important changes in our community and for the planet. Efforts like bringing real food to local schools, teaching kids how to grow plants and care for bees, and standing up for a local endangered species are reasons to be optimistic in this current climate of environmental pessimism. The millennial generation is laying the foundation for a new wave of environmental advocacy, and that is a good reason to hope for change.