by Hayley MacMillen
I may have been attending a “Real Food Challenge” event, but food itself wasn’t on my mind as I walked into the panel called “At Work in the Kitchen: Dining Workers Share Their Stories” on Saturday afternoon in Kresge Hall. I expected to hear more tales of poor treatment of campus food workers by managers or of the poverty that many of these workers face. These are the injustices the Living Wage Campaign focuses on, as these are the injustices this campaign seeks to end.
But at the panel and the rest of the Real Food Challenge conference, I began to understand that these injustices are part of a larger web of food injustice. The nutritional injustice of limiting fresh produce in campus meals because it is “too expensive,” or of using canned and frozen ingredients because they produce a “consistent product.” The environmental injustice of transporting foodstuffs from thousands of miles away, burning fuel and overlooking the products of local farms and farmers. The trade injustice of underpaying the farm workers in these faraway fields.
The three workers on the panel didn’t focus on what they disliked about their jobs. They focused on what they enjoyed: working with food. We sometimes fall into the trap of thinking of campus workers just as victims, but Tom, Connie and Akhil were very clear: they take pride in their livelihoods and enjoy making food that is delicious, nutritious, creative and attractive. They talked of how over their years working here, they have seen the quality of the food they serve diminish, the amount of fresh vegetables and fruits they serve dwindle, and their freedom to modify and improve recipes all but disappear. It appears that food itself is way down on the list of priorities of Northwestern’s food operations, as is the well-being the people who cook and serve this food. And that is just wrong.
The real food movement is based on the idea that this nation is in desperate need of “real food”: food that “truly nourishes producers, consumers, communities and the earth.” Real food is local and fair (which refers to who produces it), ecologically sound and humane (which refers to how it is produced.) According to the real food movement, America’s food system is broken. A food system is a “web of individuals, companies, organizations, companies, and other institutions that work to produce, process and distribute food…from seed to plate and back again.” That burrito you ate for lunch at your favorite dining hall? You probably weren’t thinking about everything it took to get that burrito onto your plate and into your mouth. You probably weren’t thinking about the farmers who grew the wheat for the tortilla, the tomatoes for the salsa, or the beans or rice or lettuce; about the fuel it took to transport these ingredients from wherever they were grown to Evanston; about the treatment of the cows who gave their milk for the cheese or their meat for the steak; or even about the food workers who made you that burrito. And that’s not because you don’t care. It’s because students don’t tend to realize what a massive, convoluted web of effort and energy and money goes into feeding them.
American colleges and universities spend over $4 billion a year on food. The profit that the top three food service corporations (Sodexo, Aramark and Compass Group) collectively make from doing business with colleges and universities? $18 billion. And who are this massive industry’s ultimate consumers? We are. We’re the ones with the meal plans, points and dollars that are paying for this industry, and we have the power to change the way it’s run. We can start by fighting to increase the amount of local, fair, ecologically sound and humane food served on our campuses. It’s time for food that “nourishes producers, consumers, communities and the earth” – not just Sodexo’s bottom line.