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DU Meets 20% Sustainable Food Goal

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Alyssa Hurst

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Real Food

“If you are going to speak about it, you gotta be about it.”

That’s Gina Vega’s guiding principle as she works to build food sustainability at the University of Denver. Vega is sustainability and wellness manager for Sodexo, DU’s food service provider, and for the last several years, her work has focused on increasing the University’s local and sustainably sourced supply as part of the Real Food Challenge.

Created in 2007 by a group of University of Maryland student activists, the Real Food Challenge asks universities to shift 20% of their food budgets away from industrially farmed, “unhealthy” food toward locally sourced, ecologically sound, fair and humane food sources by 2020.

DU joined the challenge in 2014. At the time, an audit found that only 3% of the University’s food counted as “real food” per the challenge’s rules. But through six years of hard work, biannual audits and careful attention, the University has reached its 20% goal ahead of schedule, reports Chad King, DU’s sustainability director.

“It seemed like a stretch goal when we first started tracking this,” King says. “Things have gotten a lot better, and we were early [adopters] of something that’s being called for more dramatically now, in terms of understanding where our food comes from.”

Each percentage point along the way was hard fought. To qualify as “real food” under the challenge rules, food must be third-party certified as sustainable or must come from a source within 250 miles of campus. Step one for DU was understanding how much already fell into this category.

“Early on we had students calling a lot of the places we were getting our food from to better understand where it was coming from. The first couple of percentage points were just getting better at tracking,” King explains. “For the first couple years, the students did all the audits. That was going through stacks of paper two feet high for each month that we audited and going through manually and entering data.”

Now, Vega says, much of that work is done in partnership with Sodexo. The Sodexo team works closely with its multiple vendors to create comprehensive food lists and ordering guides that fall within Real Food Challenge rules. Sodexo also educates its staff on ordering the most sustainable options and meticulously plans meals. All this is done while considering budget constraints, dietetics, demand and sustainability.

“The price of local or organic or both is higher. We have to look at how much we are using. We have to be mindful of whether it’s a popular item and whether it is successful for our food goals,” Vega says. “It’s a lot of balancing back and forth.”

With the Real Food Challenge successfully met, Sodexo and DU’s sustainability team aren’t stopping. Armed with a new sustainable food policy (which grew out of student research), the University is now addressing everything from food preparation and food waste to culturally relevant meal planning.

What’s more, the new Community Commons dining hall will have its own cook-chill food-processing system, which will allow for locally purchased, in-season fruits and vegetables to be processed, frozen and enjoyed by students year-round.

This work, King says, has the potential to create countless benefits from the individual level to the global arena.

Local, sustainable food is simply healthier, he argues: “The sooner the food gets to the plate, the more nutrient value it has. You also have less potential for chemical contamination or pesticides and herbicides in your food when you’re getting it sustainably sourced.”

In turn, a focus on community-sourced food extends outside DU’s campus to the broader region. Buying locally, King says, keeps money in Colorado’s economy longer and allows wealth to build right here at home.

All of this serves a bigger environmental purpose as well: “We are reducing chemicals in the atmosphere and waters and soil when we are moving toward organically certified. We are protecting ecosystems and habitat when we look at rain-forest certified. We improve the quality of work and workspace and life for employees in the food system when we go with fair trade,” King says.  

To date, DU’s success has helped the Real Food Challenge make a difference. So far, the initiative has helped shift a combined $80 million on campuses around the country toward better food choices.