Real Food Challenged?

By Henry Duerr ’21

Herald Staff

Food. Something so simple, yet so vital to life. Here at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, food comes through the Sodexo corporation. Sodexo is a French food service and facility management company that operates on 13,000 sites in North America alone. Founded in 1966, Sodexo states that “wherever we work, our dedication to making every day a better day for people and organizations comes from one goal — to positively improve Quality of Life.”

Real Food Challenge (RFC) is an initiative that came to HWS in 2013. RFC dates back to 2007, when student activists and sustainability officials in higher education launched the challenge “as a means to amplify student voices and focus our collective efforts on real change in higher education and in the food industry.” As to their goal, “Real Food Challenge aims to shift $1 billion (20%) of existing university food budgets away from industrial farms and unhealthy food and towards local & community-based, fair, ecologically sound, and humane food sources—what we call Real Food—by 2020.”

The RFC determines what makes real food in a number of ways, but the guiding principle is health and sustainability for producers, earth, consumers, and communities. This means that in order to qualify, a food product must be local and community based, fair, ecologically sound, and humane. The RFC is continually adapting to the food industry and has released new food standards on several occasions, the most recent being in July of 2018.

The RFC puts food into one of three categories: Real Food A, Real Food B, and Conventional. Real Food A products meet two or more standards and best represent said standards. Real Food B products meet one or more standard but may not best represent those standards. Items that don’t meet any of these standards are put into the Conventional category. Some disqualifiers that would land a food item in the Conventional category: egregious human rights or labor violations, concentrated animal feeding operations, genetically modified organisms, and ultra-processed foods (foods containing controversial dyes, trans-fats etc.) In essence, Real Food A is devoid of these things and exemplifies the RFC standards. Real Food B meets one standard and hasn’t been disqualified. Conventional food fails to meet any of the RFC standards or may have been disqualified.

We spoke with a representative of the RFC here at HWS to see how we as a campus are measuring up to these standards. We received statistics from the academic years of 2013-2014 and 2015-2016. For the academic year of 2013-2014, the RFC report divided the food as 4% Real Food A, 6% Real Food B, and 91% Conventional. The next year, Real Food A was at 2%, Real Food B at 10%, and Conventional Food at 88%.

In interview, Russell Payne for the Herald spoke to Dave McCandless, the General Manager of Sodexo at HWS. McCandless emphasized that “Sodexo has a national relation with RFC. It’s something we believe in.” He also questioned the accuracy of the figures, citing vendors who have been disqualified for poor reasons. McCandless explained, for example, that “Byrne dairy doesn’t qualify. They are a fantastic family-owned company that grew too successful, and now they don’t count. The only reason they were disqualified was for being too big.” On the inverse side, McCandless said that figures could be skewed by “small producers who can’t carry the certifications and insurance, and actually spend the money to achieve these categories.” He also mentioned the need to examine the actual input of the figures, saying that “we have already identified several of them and we will be working with sustainability and the RFC intern in order to plug some of those holes.”

Last academic year (2017-2018), Real Food A was reported at 0%, Real Food B was at 2%, and Conventional was at 98%. Examining the results of the Real Food Challenge report, we found that 1% of the food was local. 1% was deemed ecologically sound food. 1% of the food was fair trade. 0% of the food was humane.

The expenditures of the 2013-2014 academic year that were recorded and tabulated in the RFC calculator totaled $411,803. The subsequent year of 2015-2016, the recorded expenditures rose to $418,791. To put some of the statistics into spending, in 2013-2014 Sodexo spent $37,062 on Real Food, both A and B. In 2015-2016, Real Food A and B spending went up to $50,254. Going off of these numbers, if we project Sodexo’s expenditures for the academic year of 2017-2018 at $425,000 and apply the RFC data (0% Real Food A, 2% Real Food B, 98% Conventional), the total spending on items that weren’t disqualified from these expenditures was $8,500. That means that the total amount of confirmed spending for food that was ecologically sound, humanely sourced, fair trade, and locally produced in 2017-2018 was less than $9,000.

The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education runs a self-reporting, transparent framework by which universities can measure their food performance. This network, the Sustainability Tracking Assessment & Rating System, or STARS, is run by the office of Sustainability at HWS. Our overall STARS score, as of March 2018, is 61.98 out of 100. Additionally, on the same STARS report there is a section noting that “Sodexo, the HWS dining service provider, has committed to 20% local purchase by 2020 through the Better Tomorrow Plan.” The BTP is a corporate responsibility roadmap that Sodexo has laid out as “designed to keep us on track in relation to our aspirations as a responsible business.” Sodexo plans to fully implement the BTP into their business model by 2025, noting that the effort “increases our influence and helps us retain and grow services with existing clients.”

McCandless acknowledged that “Trying to balance the needs of everyone through one operation isn’t always easy and very rarely makes everyone happy.” There is certainly an agreement on that. The numbers would indicate that the student body must take it upon themselves if they want to make this change. If there is an established baseline of just how good our food is, we can measure our growth and create real change. We have another six years in our contract; let’s use them “to positively improve Quality of Life.”

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