According to Brown Dining Services, 36 percent of University food purchases currently meet at least one of the four “real food” criteria — local, fair, ecologically sound and humane — outpacing Dining Services’ original goal of reaching 35 percent by 2014.
The Brown chapter of the Real Food Challenge, a national initiative designed to encourage sustainable food practices, started a collaboration with Dining Services in 2009 with a two-year pilot program that allocated $25,000 and created four student positions within Dining Services.
Anna Rotman ’14, a sustainability intern, said the money was used up almost immediately, but Dining Services continued to progress with the program. “They’ve been great partners with us so far and very excited about this initiative,” she said.
Rotman credited the program’s initial success to the fact that the University does not outsource the management of Dining Services and has both an in-house bakeshop and butcher shop, which she said are rare finds in university dining systems.
A push from students for more sustainable practices, like buying locally sourced milk, was also important, she said — Dining Services now purchases 100 percent of its milk products from Rhody Fresh Farms of Rhode Island.
According to the 2011 College Sustainability Report Card, which gave Brown an “A” in the “Food and Recycling” category, Dining Services spent $423,938 on locally grown or raised food and $111,070 on organic food in the 2009-10 academic year, up from the $150,000 and $58,000 reported the previous year. About 20 percent of the overall food budget went toward local products, including some from the student garden.
Ann Hoffman, director of administration for Dining Services, and Peter Rossi, assistant director, wrote in an email to The Herald that Dining Services created the Blue Room’s menu with the Real Food Initiative in mind.
Fifty-two percent of the food served at the Blue Room currently fulfills at least one of the real food categories, said Jonathan Leibovic ’12, who worked as the Real Food Initiative public relations and education coordinator for Dining Services last year.
This is the first real food assessment that Dining Services has performed and many of the products they were already purchasing met the criteria, Hoffman and Rossi wrote. For that reason, the 36 percent figure should be viewed as a baseline for future progress, Rotman said.
“It’s really fantastic that we’ve been able to hit 36 percent, but I think we have to understand what that number means,” Leibovic said. He said there are some potential pitfalls with the Real Food Calculator, the method used to assess the food products Dining Services purchases. Since a product has to receive an “A” in only one of the four criteria to be considered real food, the numbers can be misleading. For instance, even if a product is considered organic, it could still be made using unjust labor.
Leibovic credited the help of student groups such as the Sustainable Food Initiative, the Student Labor Alliance and Students for a Democratic Society for the initiative’s progress, but he said he would like to see more participation from the entire Brown community.
“I think increasingly we’re seeing that our food-purchasing decisions have massive repercussions across the board. I think that as a student, it’s very hard not to have that autonomy in deciding where your food is coming from,” Rotman said.
Though students working for the Real Food Initiative help dictate where food is purchased, they are not allowed to see the details of the Dining Services budget, she said. “It would be really nice to have a lot more transparency about where that money is coming from to supplement these changes,” Rotman said.
Some students within the movement are concerned that buying pricier, more responsible food products will force Dining Services to cut back on its labor budget or increase the price of meal plans. Though she said she hopes to see Dining Services eventually reach 100 percent real food, it is unlikely their budget could accommodate the associated cost increases, Rotman said.
Hoffman and Rossi did not comment on financial specifics. “Brown Dining Service works closely with the farmers, distributors and manufacturers to find balance with budget requirements while remaining committed to the initiative,” they wrote.
The Real Food Initiative plans to present a progress update and a new list of demands to President Ruth Simmons next semester.