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Friday, May 7, 2021

Dining halls to increase ‘real food’

Western is a year into its commitment to the Real Food Challenge, a plan to spend one quarter of its food budget on local, sustainable food by the year 2020. It’s part of a nationwide initiative to shift food purchasing to humane, local and environmentally friendly sources.

The university has made progress toward meeting its goal, but completing the commitment will still take effort, co-chair of the working group Kurt Willis said.

“We’re still 10 [percentage] points away,” Willis said. “We’re talking anywhere from 1.5 to 3 percentage points per year. It’s doable, but it’s certainly going to take a fair amount of effort.”

Each percentage point represents about $45,000 that needs to be shifted to real food, Willis said.

“Can we buy more local tomatoes? If we commit to buying this certain product that is real food, then we buy less of something else.”

Leonard Jones, university residencies director

One of the ideas behind the program is for students to have a say in how their money is spent and where their food comes from, junior Rosa Rice-Pelepko said. Rice-Pelepko is the student co-chair for the Food Systems Working Group, a group that oversees the implementation of the plan.

“All college campuses do it differently, and we have a team of folks at the national level who are resources to us,” Rice-Pelepko said.

Western committed to the Real Foods Challenge on April 1, 2016. Former president Bruce Shepard and several members of the faculty, staff, dining services and students signed the commitment. Other signatories included the club Students for Sustainable Food and Leonard Jones, the university residencies director.

Much of the last year has been spent laying groundwork for the implementation by organizing committees, Rice-Pelepko said.

There are three committees that are handling the implementation, Rice-Pelepko said. One is a multi-year action plan group that will figure out how to reach the spending goal in time. The second is an education and reporting committee, which will work with public and student outreach. The third is a product-shifting group, which will research and work with providers to determine how and where to buy the food, Rice-Pelepko said.

One of the ways to meet the goal is to purchase the same foods the university already buys, but from sustainable suppliers. That is often more expensive, which means spending cuts must be made in other areas, Jones said.

“There are ways of reaching the targeted goal without raising prices or costs,” Jones said. “Can we buy more local tomatoes? If we commit to buying this certain product that is real food, then we buy less of something else.”

Another way to meet the sustainable food goal is to work with the providers, Madison Boock, an officer with Students for Sustainable Food, said.

“What we’ve determined is we want to work with community-based organizations like Avenue Bread and work with them specifically for them to increase their real food percentage,” Boock said, “which will in turn increase our real food percentage on our university. But so far we’re in the beginning stages right now.”

Rice-Pelepko is optimistic about the plan.

“I would say it’s going well. Another challenge is figuring out where we want to start as a group because we have so many voices that need to be heard in this process,” Rice-Pelepko said.

Paul Cocke, director of communications and marketing, likes that the students and university are working together to meet their goal.

“The students came with a great idea, like green energy or bottled water, and the administration instead of saying, ‘Oh, no we’re not going to do that,’ said, ‘How can we make this work?’” Cocke said. “I think it’s another great example of collaboration between the university and the students.”

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