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Editorial: University should be a leader in fair food practices

On April 16 at a Brown University Community Council meeting, a group of students proposed a resolution to create a Fair Food Committee, which would set environmental and trade standards for food used on Brown’s campus. The students promoting this campaign commended the University’s past efforts toward improving food awareness and sustainable sourcing, yet also recognized that there is more work to be done. Over the past few years, Brown’s progress toward achieving the highest possible standards of fair food has slowed. In light of our room for growth in this area, we greatly appreciate the student advocates for calling attention back to the importance of fair food practices on campus and urge the University to make further strides in this area.

Student activism surrounding fair food issues is not new to this campus. In 2008, the national campaign known as the “Real Food Challenge” made its way to Brown. Co-founded by David Schwartz ’09, it urged college students to challenge their campuses to source “local, sustainable, fair and humane food sources.” Brown Dining Services rose to the occasion, creating four paid student positions and allocating $25,000 in funds to support the project. The University certainly deserves credit for showing their commitment to the challenge, which has resulted in positive change on campus. Brown Dining Services has reported that BDS has already surpassed its 2020 goal of sourcing 20 percent of its food according to the standards set forth by the campaign.

This progress is important to the community on College Hill and beyond, but we seem to have become complacent in recent years. Today, the percentage of food purchased by Brown Dining Services that meets Real Food standards hovers only 3 percent above our 20 percent goal. Further, in the last year, the share of food we purchase from producers who practice fair trade has decreased: In FY18, 2 percent of purchases were from fair trade producers, which marks a 1 percent decrease from the 3 percent in FY17. While past efforts have helped the University make considerable headway in addressing the issue, these metrics show that the student resolution draws necessary attention back to sustainability and ethical food sourcing on campus. 

While we recognize that sourcing more ethically-produced and ecologically friendly foods will be costly for the University, our commitment to this cause will contribute to a greater global effort to address the negative externalities of the massive food industry. The food system’s contributions to the world’s total carbon emissions are astounding: 83 percent of total emissions come from food production, while 11 percent come from the transportation of this food. In working to reduce the food industry’s toxicity, we should continue to aspire to the standards outlined by the original Real Food Challenge.

“Real food,” as outlined in the annual sustainability report, must uphold standards of local sourcing, fair trading, ecologically sound production and humane animal treatment. Universities inherently have incredible purchasing power, and BDS can use this to make ethical and sustainable food choices more of a norm on College Hill and beyond. For example, in placing greater emphasis on purchasing from ecologically conscious producers, the University will play an important role in supporting a broader trend that places new expectations on food companies to meet higher standards for preservation in their production. The University clearly acknowledges that working with ecologically sound producers is an important practice to pursue; it has publicly tracked its success in sourcing from these producers since its Annual Sustainability Report from 2013. However, their recognition has not resulted in tremendous action: In 2018, only 6 percent of total food purchased by BDS was deemed ecologically sound. We must do better.

In addition to encouraging a system with ecological preservation in mind, the University has the power to lead by example in upholding fair trade standards. Individuals who work in food production often lack safe working conditions and are not given a living wage. In an effort to combat this, Fairtrade International has set standards for the international community to follow. Fairtrade certification ensures that goods are produced in humane working environments, that producers were offered fair prices for their goods and that workers were adequately compensated for their labor. As students, it is troubling to learn that an overwhelming majority of the food on campus contributes to the peril of a myriad of agricultural laborers. Brown has an obligation to remain true to its values, for the good of its students and for the good of the environment and labor from which it benefits.

We urge Brown to listen to the passionate individuals who are willing to take on ventures for crucial issues. For Brown to remain true to its values as a sustainable and principled organization, it should take on this project that has the opportunity to benefit not only its students but the global community for generations to come. 

Editorials are written by The Herald’s editorial page board: its editors, Grace Layer ’20 and Krista Stapleford ’21, and its members, Elisheva Goldberg ’22, Eduard Muñoz-Suñé ’20 and Riley Pestorius ’21. Send comments to Send comments to


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