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University News

Student hires bring ‘real’ food to the Ratty

Contributing Writer
Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Last semester, Brown Dining Services hired two students to search for “real food” — food that is local, fair, ecologically sound and humane — and this Thursday at the Sharpe Refectory’s Earth Day Dinner Special, the Brown community will see what they’ve found.

The Herald reported in October that Brown’s chapter of the Real Food Challenge, a national campaign to increase sustainable food in university dining halls, received $25,000 from President Ruth Simmons’ discretionary fund for a two-year pilot project, creating paid student jobs in Dining Services. Two students were hired: Kyle Lemle ’11, the Real Food Initiative public relations and education coordinator, and Emily Viggiano ’12, the Real Food Initiative progress coordinator. Lemle said the $25,000 goes toward the two student hires and to offset the cost increase from purchasing the more expensive food products.

Jonathan Leibovic ’12, a Real Food advocate, said in the original proposal, Brown’s Real Food chapter requested eight student positions, but in the course of negotiations with BDS, the administration, Human Resources and the Office of Campus Life, it was determined that funding was available for only two Real Food positions. The Real Food interns work with two existing Community Harvest interns — Maddie Brown ’10 and James Tarrant ‘10.5, according to the BDS Web site. Those positions have been around for a few years and comprise the “local purchasing arm of the program,” Leibovic said.

Real food must be “local, environmentally sensitive, fair and humane,” Lemle said. “So basically the point of Real Food is to promote conscious consumption, to know where our food is coming from, to know who has produced our food and how, and to (take responsibility for) the broader footprint of our eating, which is such an everyday act that we do so unmindfully. Most people don’t care because they don’t know that they should care or know how the food industry works, especially in large institutional food establishments like the Ratty.”

Viggiano did a study of the top 100 items consumed at the Ratty, contacting the farms, distributors and producers and applying the Real Food criteria to each of those items, Lemle said. There are different grades of real food, depending on how many criteria they meet, and most of the food, Lemle said, met only the local criterion or none at all. Viggiano then “identified places to make switches that are both economically feasible and make a big impact,” she said.

“Right now, we’ve increased our purchases of (local) Rhody Fresh milk to 65 percent,” Viggiano said. “We have switched to albacore tuna from tongol tuna, which was based on the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch guidelines. We have switched to all fair-trade and organic bananas. We worked with a local seafood distributor that we get our fresh seafood from and switched all our menu fresh seafood items to sustainable species, although there’s a lot of controversy over what’s sustainable in the seafood world.”

Viggiano said student involvement in the Real Food debate is always appreciated, since “it’s not always cut and dry which are the best options.” The Brown Animal Rights Club has been involved in campaigning for humanely raised eggs from cage-free chickens, Viggiano said, and BDS is in the process of switching both their liquid and whole eggs to a certified organic, certified humane provider.

Lemle said he works assisting Viggiano with the switches, educating the whole department and staff on what Real Food is and why it’s important, and publicizing Real Food and the switches BDS has made to the larger Brown community. He said he has been working this semester to provide more Real Food options in the new Blue Room that will open in Faunce House next semester.

“I go to the sampling meetings or product presentations for the Blue Room as the representative of Real Food,” Lemle said. “Basically, I get paid to sit there and eat food. Delicious, delicious food. While we won’t get 100 percent Real products in the Blue Room, for most things we’re going to really think about how we can get the best product.”

“The goal (for BDS) is to understand where we are now, so we can more clearly identify the most productive steps to move forward,” wrote Associate Director of Dining Services Peter Rossi in an e-mail to The Herald. An obstacle to making food more “real” for BDS comes from food producers and manufacturers, who “don’t have required information readily available for each food item,” Rossi wrote.

Viggiano said financial barriers and “accommodating the spectrum of needs that students have,” such as having beef every day, are also obstacles for BDS in increasing Real Food. While some individual Blue Room items may increase in price, Real Food will not increase the meal plan cost to students, according to Lemle.

“We recognize how much food already costs at Brown, and it takes a lot of work to source Real Food products economically, but that’s the goal. That’s the main concern students have with the initiative — that it will be too expensive.”

Thursday’s Earth Day Dinner Special will work as sort of “kick-off for showing the new switches” at the Ratty, Viggiano said.

Planning for the event began last summer, and the Rhode Island School of Design and Brown will be offering the same menu on Thursday, Rossi wrote. The goal of the dinner, he wrote, “is to bring awareness of the wonderful local items that are available, the importance of where food is sourced and to have discussions regarding the food choices we make.”

Lemle said BDS will save the leftovers as part of an experiment, asking students to scrape their plates into a bucket to weigh the amount of waste the Ratty produces throughout the night.

Dining Services is “really open to the initiative and working hard on the initiative,” Viggiano said. “I think one thing (BDS) need to know is that students are supporting these switches because they really need to satisfy what students want. I think if students are supportive of real food, being vocal about that is a good thing.”


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