Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Real Food Challenge

The Real Food Challenge is a nationwide effort to get college campuses to buy organic and sustainable food. There's no question this is a good thing. People should eat better food when they can. And many campuses, including my own, have made some really sensible moves to reduce our carbon footprint--for instance, getting rid of trays which cuts down on both food waste and water use, as well as eliminating styrofoam takeout trays and replacing them with recycled cardboard that you have to pay for. This is a concrete way that young people can challenge their energy to change the world and win real victories.

Nonetheless, I have a certain ambivalence toward this movement. Not on its merits, which of course are impeccable. But as is common, class is ignored in these arguments. In fact, the consumption patterns of the rich is seen as a good reason for the Real Food Challenge in this article by Anna Lappé in The Nation as a justification of the program (available to subscribers only, but The Nation is only $18 a year for an online subscription and really we have to start paying for some of our journalism or a lot of valuable publications are going to go away. So sign up. Damn it.)

The concept is simple, really. Students, some who pay as much as $100,000, or more, for four years at a private college, should have a say in what grub their schools serve--and that food should reflect shared values of fairness and sustainability. The Real Food Challenge provides an organizing tool to empower students to persuade their schools to make the move. Schools that join the challenge pledge to shift at least 20 percent of school food to "real food"--sustainably raised, grown with fairness, and from local and regional farms--by 2020.

What does paying a lot for college have to do with the food you eat? Or what should it have to do with it more precisely. Because in reality, it's rich kids using their power as wealthy consumers to push particular consumption patterns. In this case, they are good consumption patterns, but nonetheless, what about poorer kids? Now, many schools across the nation are adopting these standards, including some public institutions. But wealthy private school kids are leading the way, pressing for their own consumption choices first.

Much more disturbing is the disconnect between consumption and production. Lappé gives lipservice to the food being "fair," but there's no evidence in the article than students are pushing ideas of fair production as an important part of their movement. It's sad too. 10 years ago, campuses were all abuzz about labor conditions in sweatshops. Living wage campaigns and anti-sweatshop groups existed across the nation. That faded away pretty quick, and so has concerns about the people producing the goods we buy.

The Real Food Challenge would be fantastic if it also asked two questions of administrators and food suppliers.

1. How much are the people working in the cafeteria getting paid? Do they make a living wage? Can they afford the food they are serving us?

2. What are the working conditions for employees of food suppliers we contract with? Particularly with organic food, this should be an important consideration. If we are forcing administrators to change how food is procured, working conditions can and should be addressed. Organic agriculture has caused some major problems with food production. The United Farm Workers have had issues with some organic suppliers because when you don't use chemicals on plants, they required much more physically backbreaking labor. I don't think it's right that the food going into my body should be produced on the broken bodies of the world's poor.

I have two major worries here. First, that if administrators and food corporations balk at any discussion of working conditions and production outside of issues of what is organic, that students will sacrifice concerns of the working-class.

Second, the Campus Food Challenge is a great thing. The last thing I want to do is dampen the enthusiasm my students have to change the world. That's wonderful. I don't want to be too negative. But I also think it's important to remember people who don't have access to power when those lucky few of us who do have that access organize to make a difference. Let's make a difference for everyone, not just wealthy consumers.

Via Rodger.