The Johns Hopkins University has swapped traditional dining hall fare this year with new offerings: 25 varieties of apples from a farm in Pennsylvania, greens grown less than three miles away in Baltimore and gourmet beef from a cattle breeder in Monkton.
In six years, the college plans to increase its servings of local, sustainably grown food to 35 percent of all ingredients, becoming one of a handful of universities nationwide to make such a commitment about its cuisine.
The move comes at a time of growing interest in where food comes from and how it is grown. More than a dozen small urban farms are scattered throughout Baltimore, including one started by Hopkins students on its nearby Eastern campus on 33rd Street.
Raychel Santo, one of several JHU students who persuaded the university to adopt the changes, said she worries large-scale corporate agriculture is inhumane to farm animals and bad for the environment.
"There's a lot of problems in our food system," said Santo. Because food "is so connected to everything, it presents a big solution. Maybe if we can fix these problems little by little, maybe we can fix some of the other problems of our society as a whole."
Hopkins is one of 19 colleges or universities in the U.S. to join the Real Food Challenge, a campaign to encourage institutions to buy at least 20 percent of their food from small nearby farmers and butchers by the year 2020. Only three other universities — the University of California, Santa Cruz; Warren Wilson College in North Carolina; and Oberlin College in Ohio — have committed to having a larger percentage of their purchases from such sources.
After three years of hounding classmates for petition signatures and writing to administrators, Santo and other students were able to persuade the university to sign the pledge. But they were surprised by the university's level of commitment to their cause.
The university originally agreed that 20 percent of what it serves would be "real food." But at a dinner this month to celebrate the agreement, where students prepared a kale salad and chicken chili from locally sourced ingredients, Hopkins President Ronald J. Daniels "took out his red lawyer pen and crossed out 20 and wrote 35" percent on a copy of the university's pledge, said Jon Berger, an organizer who worked with the students.
"It was so unexpected for us," said Santo, a 21-year-old from Dayton, Ohio. "It will definitely present a challenge because we set it so high. It's not going to be easy to do, especially in the winter, but it's still really exciting."
Food counts toward the pledge if it meets any of four criteria under what's been dubbed the Real Food Calculator: grown or produced within 250 miles; certified fair-trade or from companies offering a living wage; sustainably grown, which usually means organic; or for meat products, from humanely treated animals. The pledge applies to dining areas on the Homewood campus.
While many universities in the area already offer fair-trade coffee and dairy products from nearby Lehigh Valley Dairy Farms in Pennsylvania, the pledge is considered a challenge because the institutions get the vast majority of their food from conventional sources.
The JHU students spent two years gathering support for the notion before proposing it to the university last year, when the campus' food service contract was close to expiring. The university signed a new contract with food service provider Bon Appetit, which officials say is better equipped to buy local food than its previous caterer.
Daniels said he signed the pledge in part because he was "so moved" by Santo's advocacy.
"Not only do we intellectually understand the challenges of sustainability but can actually put those ideas to practice in our community," he said.
Those who support the pledge, including university officials, believe it will have a significant impact on the region's economy, given JHU's buying power. University officials wouldn't discuss how much is typically spent on food purchases annually, but spokeswoman Jill Rosen said the university spent $300,000 on food that met the pledge in September, about 7 percent of the total food bought that month.
"One of the nice things Bon Appetit has done since they've been here is contact 20 farmers in the area who are now providing us food," said William Connor, the university's director of dining services.
From Licking Creek Bend Farm in Pennsylvania, the university gets 25 varieties of apples, he said. Most of the in-season greens eaten in dining halls come from Big City Farms in Baltimore. About 80 percent of the meat served is from local and humane suppliers, including ground beef from Roseda Beef in Monkton.
"There's a noticeable difference in the food that we're serving from last year," Connor said. "Students say it tastes better."
Through Bon Appetit, the university hopes to partner with the Food Hub, a project to revitalize a vacant former water pumping station at Gay and Wolfe streets in East Baltimore into a spot for year-round vegetable growing. The Hub also plans to rent kitchen space to culinary entrepreneurs from whom the university could buy products.
The university now gets hot sauce and pickled vegetables from Woodberry Kitchen's Spike Gjerde, who is helping with plans for the Food Hub.
Connor said the university expects some local or sustainably grown items will cost more but is convening a work group to address the issue, so that the cost is not passed on to students. In many cases, he said, Bon Appetit can buy directly from the farmer and cut out the cost of a middleman.
The Real Food Challenge is a national campaign that started six years ago. Berger, who is the Mid-Atlantic regional coordinator for the Real Food Challenge, said that though JHU is the first in the state to adopt the pledge, he is working with student groups on several other local campuses and hopes they will follow suit.
Johns Hopkins is "such a huge name in the health community," Berger said. "Endorsing the Real Food Calculator as the standard they get behind will have a ripple effect."
Tom Faison, a sophomore at Towson University and one of several students in the early stages of organizing a drive to get the university to sign the pledge, said much of the movement toward sustainable, local food has so far been on an "individual level." The change they want to see in society's farming and eating habits will come more quickly with the backing of major institutions, he said.
"A large institution with a very strong amount of buying power and capital influence is essentially the perfect tool to set a precedent," said Faison, a 19-year-old film and journalism major from Frederick.
Hopkins' decision will "hopefully put us on a faster timeline for success" in getting Towson to sign on, he said.
Supporters said there will be several challenges for JHU to get to the 35 percent mark in six years. The Mid-Atlantic growing season means it will be difficult to find locally sourced produce in the winter, though Connor said he thinks that the university could buy greater quantities of local produce in the spring, summer and fall to offset that problem.
"If we were a school in a more rural environment, in Florida or California, I think we'd have an easier commitment," said Connor, adding that Bon Appetit has a tomato supplier in Florida that pays their workers a living wage, which will help toward the goal.
Santo said there's also been pushback from some students who miss their junk food. Some want Oreos and Campbell's soup in a convenience store on campus that once offered those items but now is mostly stocked with organic food, she said.
But with climate change affecting agriculture in the U.S. and across the globe, and with eating habits changing, Santo said society needs to adapt.
"If we can't figure out better production systems, it's going to make everything else irrelevant," she said.
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