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Putting "Real" Food on Campus Plates

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Hai Vo, still from videoWhen Hai Vo, now an alumnus, was a student at the University of California Irvine, he began paying attention to food for the first time in his life. Away from home and having to "fend for myself," Vo says the food available on campus raised some questions: "What does a food system look like at a university? How do we educate our campus and local community about our food systems? How do we best advocate for a sustainable food system?"

U.S. Colleges and campuses spend $4 billion each year on food, yet only 2 percent of that food is "real"—sustainable food that is ethically, fairly, and humanely produced without chemical pesticides and a huge carbon footprint.

As a University of California sustainable agrifood systems fellow, Vo explored dining halls and kitchens to assess available food on campus. He co-founded the Real Food Challenge at his university. The challenge is a national student movement that organizes students around procuring real food at their schools.

Using the Real Food Calculator, a mechanism which quantifies real and sustainable food, Vo found that about 10 percent of the food procured by his university was real and sustainable. The goal, both at UC Irvine and nationally, is to shift to 20 percent real food by 2010.

To that end, the Real Food Challenge supports an infrastructure for real food, incentives for local food, and education—including a real food educational series Vo organized. About 500 students, faculty, and community members participated in the series' panels, speakers, and farm tours.

Real food doesn't just concern purchasing—green dining includes waste reduction and facility standards. And students aren't the only ones who benefit from real food. Movement away from factory farmed and heavily processed food is good for the community, local economy, laborers, and the environment.

Hai Vo is a 2009 recipient of the Brower Youth Award, an award granted by the Earth Island Institute's New Leader's Initiative in honor of environmentalist, activist and Earth Island founder David Brower.

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