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Real Food Challenge Comes To Penn State

If you’ve ever been disappointed by the food at the dining commons, you’re not alone. The Real Food Challenge is a nation-wide student campaign with a goal of increasing the amount of real food (“real” meaning sustainable, local, and nutritional) being served on college campuses.

Jon Berger, the Mid-Atlantic Regional Coordinator for the Real Food Challenge, came to Penn State Monday night to explain what exactly the Real Food Challenge is about, and how it can work for us.

Jon first had everyone in the room talk about their favorite food and their major, which was then written on the blackboard at the front of the room. There were a lot of majors you would expect to see in a food sustainability workshop, like Nutrition. However, the board quickly filled up with Biology, Business, Human Development and Family Studies, Spanish, and English; just to name a few. The point of this exercise, Jon explained, was to show how we all connect to food on some level or another, and to illustrate the wide range of people who are interested in food sustainability.

Jon then went on to explain that 70% of universities are under a contract with large corporations that procure cheap food for the dining halls. These large companies (some examples being Aramark, Sodexo, and Compass) make deals with other large food corporations and then trap universities into only buying food from these processed distributors. The result? A lot of food for your dollar, but food that lacks a lot of nutritional value.

Penn State is part of the 30% of schools that is self-operational, meaning that our dining commons buy the food themselves, cutting out the corporate middle man. You may think that this would make our school free from “real food” problems, but these meal plan corporations dominate the food market and dictate what exactly  farmers can grow, the amount of produce they grow, and the price at which they sell it at. So even though they don’t affect us directly by selling us food, they control the market and dictate what our own dining hall directors can purchase from other retailers. This means that if Compass dining wants a potato that is a certain shape, size, and type, most farmers will grow this specific potato. This is because Compass is the only company willing to pay for them, which means that when our own food service directors order our food, they have a limited option due to the restrictions already put in place by Compass and similar companies.

So why haven’t we tried to get more “real” food here at Penn State? After all, we don’t have a parent company like Compass to answer to.

Well, Alyssa Kalter, a member of the Penn State Sustainability Institute, is the student responsible for bringing the Real Food Challenge to our own university. She and Jeremy Bean, a professor at the institute, explained that they have been trying to get sustainable food in the dining commons at Penn State for ten years. The biggest problem? The sheer number of students and volume of food served at our commons. For example, Penn State goes through 4,000 pounds of tomatoes daily. That’s a lot of tomatoes, and definitely too many to grow on our own, or even grow locally. This makes the challenge of sourcing in responsibly grown food a huge financial challenge.

Although many will say that getting more real food on campus is impossible, the creation of our own Penn State Organization is a huge step in the right direction. The Real Food Challenge has several tools for all of its student members to help in the cause.

The first tool is called the real food calculator. This “calculator” is a set of guidelines drawn up by the Real Food Challenge as to what constitutes as real food. The students then go to their dining halls, gather invoices of past orders, and research, research, research. They find out where the food they’re eating comes from, what’s in it, how much it costs, and what other options the school has. This is a huge step towards educating the students and making sure they have the correct facts about their own school and the truth about the policies they are striving to change.

The other tool the Real Food Challenge uses is called the real food commitment. This is a document the students have the director of the dining commons sign, stating that they will strive to increase the amount of real food on campus, with a national goal of 20% real food by 2020. This goal is facilitated by the calculator and research I discussed above.

These tools are powerful because they facilitate the student voice, which is the biggest piece missing from the current national food discussion. As Bean from the Penn State sustainability institute said, “The students are the customers. We are catering to you.” The market has to supply real food if there is a demand for it, and if students all across the country make a stand there is a possibility for real change in our nation’s food culture. So far, 250 schools are now participating in the Real Food Challenge, and many of them have already seen results.

If you are interested in learning more about the Real Food Challenge, visit their website, or contact Alyssa Kalter at

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About the Author

Catie Simpson

Catie is a junior majoring in Human Development and Family Studies. She's also the resident townie and culinary enthusiast due to a brief stint at the CIA (the culinary school not the secret government agency). She currently works at a Baby Temperament Lab on campus where she tries to get babies to do dangerous things. She's also on the twitter.

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