Photos by Alexis Galmin
When seated at the table for your next meal, whether at a restaurant, in a dining hall or at home, take a look at the food in front of you. Before ravenously wolfing down your plate’s contents, try asking yourself this simple question: Where did it all come from? More likely than not, you won’t know the answer.
A growing number of food activists are taking issue with this disconnect. Society has a right, they argue, to know where its food comes from and to demand certain levels of sustainability from the food production process. In line with this brand of thinking, Northeastern recently endorsed the Real Food Challenge (RFC), a movement through which universities pledge to buy at least 20 percent of their food from local, fair and sustainable sources by 2020. Per the RFC’s website, the Challenge strives to “leverage the power of youth and universities to create a healthy, fair and green food system.”
The first higher education institution in Boston to adopt the Challenge, Northeastern found many reasons to pursue the RFC. “The RFC was a great fit for the university as it aligned with the type of work Dining Services has been doing for years,” said Dining Services director Maureen Timmons. “The opportunity for continuous improvement was also important and the ability for us to include additional student involvement throughout the process was very appealing.”
Student collaboration has proven key in the implementation of the RFC, with student groups like Slow Food NU and the Progressive Student Alliance working closely with Dining Services and university senior leadership. “[Slow Food NU] brought the campaign to Northeastern and the club was a way for students to get to know the Challenge,” explained Slow Food NU President Emma Clouse, a sophomore environmental studies and international affairs major. “We’ve been working on different forms of outreach and letting people know of the ways that the Real Food Challenge can be implemented,” she said.
Progressive Student Alliance Vice President Brooke Sheehan, also a sophomore environmental studies major, said her club was given a proverbial seat at the table when it came to putting RFC into practice at Northeastern. “They offered us a space and time in their meetings to talk with other members about the Real Food Challenge,” she said, “PSA and the Real Food Challenge at NU continue to be partners and supporters of one another.”
Regarding the actual implementation of the RFC on campus, Timmons explained that the movement is still in its early stages and in the process of finding its feet. “We are learning a great deal from other participating institutions and we are using some of their best practices to create an ideal RFC model for Northeastern,” she said. “This is a long-term commitment and we want to make sure we are building a strong foundation not just for the initial stages, but also for the program as it moves into its later years.” The Challenge’s “deadline,” after all, isn’t until 2020.
But with so much time and energy devoted to it, is all the hassle over more sustainable food worth it? Christopher Bosso, a food policy expert and a professor at Northeastern’s School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs, thinks so. “The Challenge is important because it focuses our collective attention on where our food comes from, the conditions under which it is produced and by whom, while being mindful of issues of cost, quality, convenience and personal desires and needs,” Bosso said. “After all, it’s one thing to say that our food should be produced under conditions that are sustainable, fairly traded, community based and ethical, and another to say that we want all of this and food that is comparatively inexpensive, convenient, and tasty.”
Taking on the RFC represents merely the latest sustainability initiative put forward by Northeastern’s historically green Dining Services department. Among the department’s top green credentials are the “Compost Here” program, which annually composts almost 700 tons of food waste, and the fact that 14 on-campus dining locations are certified as Green Restaurants, of only 591 total in the U.S. “We are continually searching for the latest in sustainability trends and are always looking for ways to implement these initiatives within our operations,” Timmons said.