McDaniel College is the second Maryland college to sign on to a pledge to purchase 20 percent "real food" by 2020.
The college's president, Roger N. Casey, and Vice President of Student Affairs and Dean of Students Beth R. Gerl signed a pledge Wednesday afternoon with the Real Food Challenge to move the college toward "real food," described as local, sustainable, humane and fair trade.
The Real Food Challenge, a student-led national movement, plans to shift $1 billion of the $5 billion colleges spend annually on processed and junk food to fair-trade and sustainably produced foods, said Real Food Challenge National Campaign Director David Schwartz.
"It would be wonderful if it was 100 percent," Schwartz said. "In some ways, it's unfortunate that 1 in 5 foods would be considered real food, but locally it's really significant."
No one wants to do away with foods students love, such as chicken nuggets, Schwartz said, but the campaign encourages colleges to spend dining dollars in the community instead of on food products halfway around the world that lack transparency.
At McDaniel, Gerl said the students have been pioneering the effort to move toward sustainability in the food services and other aspects of campus life.
"It's important we are utilizing farmers and businesses within our own regional area to help sustain their businesses are farms," Gerl said. "This pledge helps us to put a framework on how we do it."
So what is "real" food?
According to Schwartz, real food comes from farms and food operations within 250 miles of independent or co-operated organizations. It is fair-trade, which ensures international products such as coffee or bananas are produced on small farms or co-ops, not plantations, he said.
The food is also ecologically sound, which means it is organic: grown with less synthetic fertilizers, and it is humane, which means the animals are not subject to animal cruelty or pumped with hormones or steroids, Schwartz said.
Where McDaniel is at, and where it's going
McDaniel currently serves about 6 percent real food, said Rita Webster, general manager of dining services.
Students have always taken an interest in the food served through dining services, she said. Last year, McDaniel started "Dinner on Us," a monthly catered event for students to discuss the food services at the college.
"Students say they want their veggies to be local and talk about the foods they want to see more often," Webster said. "They want their food to be more [conscientious] — better and local."
The college also started implementing "Less Meat Monday," and started serving vegan and vegetarian options as well as foods that comply with religious restrictions, Webster said.
The campus also provides other, more sustainable options to students through farmers markets and co-ops, Gerl said.
Sodexo, the college's dining services company, started a farmers market on campus in 2012 for students to receive local produce.
This school year was also the first time students signed up for the schoolwide co-op, which delivers boxes of produce to campus. About 40 students, mostly living in on-campus apartments, have signed up for the co-op this year, Gerl said.
Agustina "Gu" Ruis, McDaniel's Student Government Association president, said being green and practicing sustainability is important to the students.
"Buying locally offsets [carbon dioxide] emissions, which is changing the Earth through climate change," Ruis said. "It's an imperative change to think about where we buy food, where it is coming from and even buying online."
About 30 McDaniel students have formed a campuswide organization, The Real Food Challenge McDaniel, which worked with the food services staff to calculate the data and determine where the college was in terms of real food.
A committee of students, faculty and dining staff will be meeting regularly to build a plan to move McDaniel toward its 20 percent goal, said Gerl. But the success of the initiative will depend on several factors.
About 58 institutions, including McDaniel College, have signed onto the Real Food Challenge, Schwartz said.
To accomplish the goal of more real food, Schwartz said institutions will have to make relationships with farmers and food entrepreneurs in the region. To reach the 20 percent figure, he said, the college or university "has made a real effort to feed students in a real and healthy way."
At McDaniel, Gerl said the committee will have to work strategically alongside the budgeting and planning committee to ensure the movement toward real food is implemented in line with operating costs.
The committee will also have to take into account what foods students want and the availability of those foods, Gerl said. Lastly, the shift in food options will have to be weighed against the nutritional guide, to ensure students have a balanced diet, she said.
What other colleges are doing
Last year, Johns Hopkins University became the first college is Maryland to sign onto the Real Food Challenge.
The university was already at 20 percent real food, as its dining services company Bon Appetit already makes that commitment, said Bill Connor, director of dining programs at Hopkins.
Hopkins pledged a 35 percent goal by 2020, challenging the university to raise its commitment to diverting purchasing dollars to real food, he said.
At Hopkins, a group of students called the Food System Working Group helps oversee and provide direction on the college's movement toward its more sustainable goal.
"The students are inputting invoices and looking at purchasing and doing data analysis," Connor said. "They look at the measurements and analytics on where we are and report back on produce, dairy, fish and chicken to say which groups we need to bring up."
The group also breaks into smaller committees to discuss policy, sourcing, accountability, marketing and objectives, he said.
Buying from urban farms within the Baltimore City limits and purchasing only fair-trade coffee has also helped Hopkins to increase its real food goal, he said.
Hopkins is currently at 26 percent, which Connor said is great, but the last 9 percent will be difficult.
"Sometimes getting toward the end is the hardest part," he said. "You can make changes up front with where you are purchasing, but the hardest part is the incremental shifts."
Millennials care more
Overall, Gerl said she believes this crop of students at McDaniel, part of the millennial generation, cares a little bit more about sustainability.
"It's impressive looking at the big picture of sustainability," Gerl said. "The current student population cares more about what's on the table, where their clothes are being made, energy conservation and about sustainability in the long term."
Ruis said McDaniel students are "progressive compared to Carroll County."
She said the staff and student body has been thinking about ways to make the world more sustainable.
The millennial generation is the first generation in American history predicted to have a shorter life span than those in its parents' generation, Schwartz said.
"It's related to diet, disease and the foods we are eating, income inequality and climate change, he said.
Millennials are no longer satisfied with a disconnect between where they buy things and where they work to have a social impact, Schwartz said.
"The movement is growing from individual citizens, consumers and young people taking action, which will send a signal to major institutions," he said.
Reach staff writer Krishana Davis at 410-857-7862 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Where "real foods" are coming from
McDaniel College is be getting some of it's real food from:
Arnold Farm in Chestertown
Carroll County Breaking News
Baugher's Farm in Westminster
Bakery de France in Rockville
Colora Orchards in Colora
H&S Bakery in Baltimore
Roma Sausage in Baltimore
Shlagel Farms in Waldorf
Spring Valley Farm and Orchard in Augusta, W. Va.