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College Campuses Go Local To Provide Campus Meals

Healthy Food
Peggy Greb
Agricultural Research Service

College students are mobilizing to change America’s food system, starting with their own cafeterias. A nationwide student movement aims to shift university food budgets away from big distributors and towards local, organic suppliers. In Ohio, Antioch College students are joining in the Real Food Challenge.

Henry Anton Peller is majoring in soil science and political economy at Ohio State. I met him earlier this year at a farmers’ conference in Granville. Peller told me he plans one day to become a farmer, too.

“Right now I’m a professional agitator, you might say.  I work with the Real Food Challenge, and we’re trying to break down institutional barriers at universities nationwide,” said Peller.

He says the challenge is to get academia to lead the way to an improved food system.

“One that is just for farm workers, good to our soils and to our environment, humane for animals,” said Peller.

The goal is to divert a billion dollars of college food budgets to local, sustainable sources within the next 5 years.

Harvard student Anim Steel co-founded the Real Food Challenge in 2008, and now serves as executive director. He expects more Ohio colleges to get involved. 

“Northwestern was the first Big Ten School to sign the Real Food Campus Commitment. We hope Ohio State will be next and will help to bring other schools along,” said Steel.

Ohio State hasn’t responded to a request for comment.

But the University of Cincinnati has already signed on to the Real Food Challenge. So has Ohio University, Oberlin, Ohio Wesleyan, and Case Western Reserve.

By promising to buy at least 20 percent of their cafeteria food from sustainable sources they’ve made what’s called the Real Food Campus Commitment.

“There are 35 schools that have signed on to that, and another 35 schools that are part of larger systems that have passed a policy consistent with our standards,” said Steel.

Cal State’s system spends 100 million dollars a year feeding 400,000 students. Its Campus Commitment means up to 25 million dollars a year could go to local farmers.

It’s a very different story at a small college in Yellow Springs that signed on to the Real food Challenge.

“We’re a self-operated food service outfit. We provide 19 meals a week to about 250 students that live on campus,” said Isaac Delamatre.

He started it and now runs it.

“My name is Isaac Delamatre. I’m the food service coordinator at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio,” said Delamatre.

The school has a history of being progressive. It’s first president was the revolutionary educator Horace Mann.

But it closed down in 2008.

When it re-opened in 2011 Delamatre, a former student, stepped up.

His plan for Antioch kitchens was accepted when school reopened in 2011: “The dining facility at the time was essentially an abandoned building. I pitched my idea. I was the only one with a plan, and I got in,” said Delamatre.

His plan was fairly simple.

“A farm to table focus,” said Delamatre.

He sources from the Antioch College Farm, built 4 years ago on the school’s former golf course, and from nearby farmers and ranchers.

“Keener Walnut Grove Farm grows all of our beef, and a neighbor of his grows most of our pork. I have a couple other people who, they’re small farms so they’ll grow one or two hogs a year and sell them to me,” Delamatre said.

He says the way students eat at Antioch ties in to the way they learn.

“Our philosophy is that it should be reflective of our values as a school that’s committed to social justice, committed to sustainability issues. So we’ve taken an approach that’s a little bit different from most schools, although a lot more are picking up on it,” said Delamatre.

At his small college he feels a big responsibility to lead the way.

“The larger the organization the more unwieldy it becomes. Also the more profit-driven they become,” said Delamatre.

He thinks too many colleges pander to students’ unhealthy habits.

“It’s a cultural shift that needs to happen really. We don’t need food courts. We don’t need Starbucks on every single college campus. We don’t need to be serving sushi at every single meal. We’re trying to offer something different at Antioch for sure,” said Delamatre.

It seems to be working, at least from a health-perspective.

“There’s kind of a running joke that we’re the opposite of the ‘freshman 15’ where the actually lose the weight when they come here, despite how much they eat. And they eat a lot. Young, growing people. They eat 2,000 to 2500 calories a day,” said Delamatre.

He says a new food revolution is growing, too.

“More and more people are getting into small-scale production agriculture. And the constituency has grown as well. People are sick of feeling bad. They’re sick of having low-quality food. They’re understanding that cheap food doesn’t mean good food,” said Delamatre.

He thinks young people understand it best, and bear a responsibility to take the vanguard.