'Real Food' responds to questions about money

By Miranda Wilder
On April 25, 2014

The Real Food Challenge has been an ongoing project at the University of New Hampshire for the past three years, and yesterday afternoon Slow Food President Katy Allen made arrangements to finalize the agreement after much debate over the financial implications it may or may not cause. 

Real Food Challenge is a countrywide movement to get university dining halls involved with fair trade and humanely raised food while maintaining an ecologically sound environment. The goal is to get at least 20 percent of dining hall food from sustainable sources. 

"What they want to get rid of is oppression and poverty," Allen said. "Countrywide we want to shift 20 percent of purchasing to real food." 

Although Real Food has not been officially approved, Slow Food and UNH Dining have agreed to fully support the movement and create a more reasonable timeline for achieving the full 20 percent of sustainable food in dining halls rather than rush ­­­­- and potentially fail ­- by 2020. 

As a student organization, Slow Food is hoping to start a movement that will not only impact universities, but small business owners, farmers, fishermen and the community as a whole. 

"I think making the commitment and being part of this movement while the spotlight is on it is important," said Annie Steeves, a member of Slow Food. "We're setting a precedent . . . I feel like it's such a huge moment to grasp onto this." 

The problem with committing to Real Food, however, is figuring out how to make it financially feasible for students, Dining and the university's overall budget. 

"I'm skeptical," said Rick MacDonald, assistant director of UNH dining. "I'm very skeptical . . . We're really trying to live up to the promises we made, but there are some concerns. Getting to that place may be expensive." 

Allen makes it very clear that this is a commitment and not a contract, something they are working towards to benefit students and the community alike, particularly small farmers or fishermen, and on an even wider scale, people living in poverty. 

The university currently spends $9.4 million on food a year, and the Dining program estimates that a commitment to Real Food would add an extra $800,000 onto that statement. 

"If we do a whole salad bar, that would be a big deal," Director of the Dining program Jon Plodzik said. "Any adjustment we make can have a huge impact." 

The cost of inflation, labor costs and items take up 70 percent of the Dining program's budget. With the inclusion of taxes, about 85 percent of the budget is used. That does not leave much room for extra expenditures. 

"There's some flaws to begin with from the outside," Plodzik said. "We are in a lot of financial pressure within dining. We're in a balancing act right now and there's a strain on it." 

These are valid concerns, as this could mean raising the cost of meal plans for students, but Slow Food is optimistic that this will not necessarily be the case, and if it is, it will not be as dramatic a change as the dining program anticipates. 

In recent years, a survey was conducted asking students if they would be willing to pay $5 more for their meal plans. Many students were unconcerned with this small additional fee.  

Even so, this brings up some concerns from the dining program. There are currently 10,300 students enrolled in the meal plan program. David Hill, one of Holloway Commons' area managers, fears that the number will decrease if there is any sort of upward change in price. 

In comparison, the University of Massachusetts-Amherst charges students $800 more for their meal plans. This is what the dining staff fears will happen to UNH students. 

"There's a reason we have more students on the meal plan than any other school," Plodzik said. 

Steeves, also student ambassador of UNH's Sustainability Institute, disagrees. 

"We can say no," she said. "We can say no, we are not going to raise our prices." She feels that it isn't necessary to raise the prices in order to be in full support of the movement. 

Allen suggested that instead of raising the cost of meal plans, they spend more time researching how to limit the amount of waste. 

"The reason it could stay the same price," she said, "is us analyzing and recognizing where they have a lot of waste . . . When they're saying that it's definitely going to raise prices, that's not necessarily true. Student [researchers and interns] will come in and do audits of what food is being wasted and what students aren't eating." 

Of course, there's no way to tell for sure that it won't affect students, but Slow Food sees ways around an automatic increase in their prices.  

"It's got to come from somewhere," Plodzik said. "Whether people, budget, the program. There's no magic pill, so to speak." 

So far, 21 universities of the 150 chapters involved with the Real Food Challenge have committed to the movement. Eleven of the 21 schools that have signed are located in New England, including the University of Vermont and University of Massachusetts-Amherst. The University of Maine, like UNH, is also close to approval. 

"It's going to benefit the world," Allen said. "It's not just for UNH, it's not just for the country. It's targeting the whole world food system . . . The food system right now is based around oppression, and that's where poverty comes in." 

As Allen puts it, the Real Food Challenge encompasses much more than just local food. It would not be as beneficial for certain schools depending on their location, because obviously not every university is located right next to a local farm or fishery and may not have as easy access. If the movement was based on local-only food, it would leave some regions stuck eating pure high fructose corn syrup or other foods produced in the area. 

Instead, Real Food looks to broaden connections and form relationships with other universities involved in the program, which is one of the reasons Slow Food finds it so crucial to get it approved. 

"We're lucky here because we have local stuff, like a wide variety of vegetables," Allen said. 

The movement aims to integrate itself even further into communities, expanding beyond universities. The more real food university dining halls purchase, the better it is for low working class members, and Slow Food sees this a way to begin improving the diets of people living in poverty everywhere. 

"People who are poor are put in the worst situation," Allen said. "They're in a cyclical relationship with their food. All they can afford is unhealthy food. Even though the food is cheap, it's artificially cheap." 

The cyclical relationship that Allen talks about is a constant cycle of poor families only being able to afford cheap, unhealthy food, therefore leading to possible health problems in the future. 

"They end up paying for it later when they're sick from the really unhealthy food that they're eating," said Erin Fitzpatrick, also a member of Slow Food. "They'll have to pay for it in medical bills." 

Not only that, but Allen finds that many of the poor end up working for farms that do not have much interest in the well-being of their employees. 

"Workers who are in poverty don't have any option but to work for these farms that treat them [poorly]," she said. "It's perpetuated by the industrial food model." 

Charlie Reid, a local farmer, can see both viewpoints regarding Real Food's approval. 

"As a farmer," he said, "I can understand where they're coming from. The amount of food that is grown in this state - that small amount of food wouldn't do anything to what UNH needs. I can see their point why they don't want to move forward with this . . . Peppers from Mexico or California or something like that, the farm land is absolutely huge out there . . . we don't have anything like that around here." 

Despite not being the most abundant area for crops and plantations, he has noticed an increase in competition at local farmers markets, particularly in Portsmouth. Reid thinks that if some of those farmers were to be informed about Real Food, they would be more than happy to provide UNH with produce. 

"My money that I have invested in this institution," Steeves said tearfully, "I want my money to be going to a society that I want to live in. We are teaching people what our society is, [about] the systemic oppression of our population in our capitalist society. You said you don't want to mislead the population-the population is being misled. Let's acknowledge the corrupt practices of this distribution. It's all about institutional transparency . . . Are we getting our money from investing in a better future, or is are money going towards screwing people over?" 

Steeves vented passionately to her peers and the faculty members present at a round table discussion, her voice cracking as she choked back tears and receiving a quietly-awed applause from some of her fellow Slow Food members. 

"It's not going to fail," she said. 

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