EatReal Pitches to Old Chapel

By Mark Sinks

EatReal has made strides in recent weeks toward bringing sustainable food to the College’s dining halls. Founded in 2013, EatReal aims to raise awareness of “real” food and match the national Real Food Challenge’s standards by increasing the proportion food that falls into at least two of the following categories: local, fair-labor, ecologically sound and humane with regard to the treatment of animals.

This week, EatReal is hosting the second annual Real Food Week. When the event was held last year, over half the student body signed a petition to dedicate a larger portion of the dining budget to purchasing real food. In a meeting between EatReal and Vice President for Finance and Treasurer Patrick Norton this past fall, Norton said that he was pleased to see student support for real food, but made it clear that more was needed before funding would be approved. In order to prove the need for an increased budget, EatReal was tasked to find out how real the food already was.

“There wasn’t much clarity as to the state of food sourcing at Middlebury,” Ben Clark ’16 said. “Most institutional dining facilities, including Middlebury, source their products from distributors.”

Mass distributors rarely reveal where their food comes from, which makes it hard for the College to know it is purchasing “real” food. As such, EatReal has been working to collect data on the sustainability and sources of food purchased by the College now.

An Environmental Council Grant allowed EatReal to employ four student-interns to spend 2014 J-term categorizing all dining hall ingredients into the four real food categories. The project analyzed meals served in the dining halls in October 2012 and March 2013, which EatReal deemed “representative months” because local summer produce allows for more real food during the warmer months, but the opposite is true in the winter.

Preliminary results suggest that the College spends approximately 20 percent of its dining hall food budget on real food, which is in line with guidelines set by the Real Food Challenge. When it was founded, EatReal sought to lead the College to devote at least 20 percent of its dining budget toward real food by 2020.

“We’re moderately happy with those results, but we think we can do a lot better,” Noah Stone ’16.5 said.

“We think it’s a realistic goal to increase our quota to 30 percent [by 2016],” Clark said.

Clark cited the University of California at Berkeley and University of California at Santa Cruz as leaders in the quest for “real” food. Both schools are hoping to spend 40 percent of their food budget on local food by 2020.

Clark noted that although they are much larger than Middlebury, both schools have the great advantage of being located adjacent to the enormous resource of the California central valley, which grows fresh produce year round.

In March, President of the College Ronald D. Liebowitz and Norton challenged EatReal to address the problem of overconsumption as part of their report on food at the College — a component of the J-term study expected to be completed later this month.

Old Chapel voiced concerns regarding dish loss and exorbitant amounts of food waste at the College.

Clark cited the forthcoming swipe system as an example of how waste can be reduced.

“As it stands right now, the dining halls have very few ways of measuring anything. [The swipe system] is a great opportunity to cut down on operational costs and offset that with an increased food budget that allows for more real food,” he said.

Ultimately, however, Clark believes that “it comes down to what people are thinking and seeing [when they decide what and how much] to eat.”

As such, EatReal is planning to continue the Weigh the Waste campaign that lost steam in the middle of the fall semester, and is also working with Dining Services to create a more detailed food labeling process, which is expected to be implemented soon.

At the end of the month, EatReal will meet with Old Chapel to present their complete research findings. With this report, they will ask for a 10 percent increase in Dining Services’ food budget, equivalent to roughly 370,000 dollars, by 2016. These additional funds will cover the costs of more expensive real food replacements for current ingredients.

Clark emphasized that increased dining hall funding will not turn into a zero sum game — spending more money on food will not take away from financial aid or other departments.

“I really believe that we are on the cusp,” Clark said. “In a month from now, I think we could say yes, we have the funding for more real food.”

Through this year’s Real Food Week programming, EatReal hopes to update the College community on the progress of the Real Food Movement and address some broader issues. A discussion about local migrant workers and a keynote speech by Abbey Willard of the Vermont Agency of Agriculture will emphasize the enormous community benefits that real food can have.

“If you’re a farm or small producer in Vermont, signing on with an institution like Middlebury is the best thing that can happen to you,” Stone said.

Global Food Studies Coordinator Sophie Esser Calvi, who serves as an advisor to EatReal and other food-related student organizations on campus, emphasized the necessity for the College to diversify the sources of its “real” food.

“Local farmers just don’t produce the quantities that we would need to serve our students,” she said.

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