“Food is everything,” says Aolani Peiper, a freshman at Fort Lewis College and the coordinator for the Real Food Challenge team. “And students can make a difference just by what they eat.”
Now, the entire campus community can make an even bigger difference through the Vote Real campaign.
“Real foods” are humanely produced, are grown locally, follow fair trade guidelines, or are produced using ecologically sound practices, Peiper explains. Through Vote Real, students, faculty, and staff have the power to determine what real foods are offered through campus dining.
“Once a month, they will get the chance to pick one of three products that we currently buy as conventional,” says Rachel Landis, coordinator of the FLC Environmental Center. “Whichever one gets the most votes, we’ll change permanently and make it a real product.”
For instance, the first ballot asks voters to choose between organic bananas, organic local potatoes, and organic spinach.
Fresh ballots will be issued each month this semester, with the option to extend into the future depending on Vote Real’s success. “I think the voting can continue indefinitely,” Peiper says.
Vote Real ballots will be available at the checkout stations in the San Juan Dining Hall and the Environmental Center. Voters can also submit electronic ballots on the EC website.
“The Vote Real campaign is the first in the nation of its kind,” Landis says. “It’s kind of idealistic, right?”
As the umbrella initiative, the Real Food Challenge is a national campaign to revolutionize the way food systems work, according to Landis. By pooling their purchasing powers, college campuses across the country can create a larger market lever to influence the products purchased and distributed by food service industries.
Vote Real is an aspect of the Real Food Challenge on the FLC campus. One of the Environmental Center’s several initiatives, the Real Food Challenge aims to shift twenty percent of the college’s food budget, about half a million dollars a year, toward humane, local, fair trade, and ecologically sound products by 2020.
“I hope that we’ll be able to reach that twenty percent a lot faster this way,” Peiper says of involving the campus in the Vote Real campaign.
Peiper also works as a sustainability intern with Sodexo, FLC’s food service provider. “Sodexo is working hard to be part of the Real Food Challenge team and reach that goal,” she says. “Lately, when I go to eat with my friends, they have been happier with the food. They feel better after eating the food.”
Students at the Environmental Center brought the Real Food Challenge to FLC in 2011. As of the 2014-2015 academic year, 2.7% of the school’s food budget went toward real food products.
“I think the last few years have been about building out the structures,” Landis says. “We’ve had some really big shifts. And already this year, just based on our campus garden grown contracts, we’ve seen a two to three percent increase in real purchasing.”
The campus garden provides about 600 pounds of organic produce each year. The Real Food Challenge encourages Sodexo to source local food from the Old Fort farm in Hesperus, as well. But campus garden grown food is limited by space and growing seasons, which is part of the reason Vote Real will source products from additional suppliers.
Peiper acknowledges the difficulties of changing food sources on campus when Sodexo has its own rules, regulations, and distribution channels by which it must abide. But by working within the food supply system with both the Environmental Center and Sodexo, she also experiences the opportunities for personal growth.
“It’s been a journey,” she says, “and being on the Real Food Challenge team has helped me learn more about the personal and environmental effects real food can have.”
Peiper also appreciates that the ongoing process of voting real has the potential to engage her fellow students with this daily aspect of their lives.
“Everyone eats,” she says. “It’s a part of our lifestyle. Our commitment is about helping the community learn how to eat real food, and doing it in an environmentally safe and just way.”