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Wednesday, November 24, 2010

"Voting with their forks"

By Amanda Reid

"The way we eat represents our most profound engagement with the natural world. Daily, our eating turns nature into culture, transforming the body of the world into our bodies and minds."

-Michael Pollan, The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals

It’s 11:27a.m. on Tuesday, November 23, 2010, and people begin to file into Doheny Beach AB Room in the Student Center at UC Irvine. Today is the Real Food Challenge club’s GIANT Potluck Event. The event was planned to be outdoors, in Aldrich Park, but forecasted rain forced it indoors. Club members hoped to get thousands of Anteaters into Aldrich Park to simply hang out, share a meal and talk about how UCI could go “green”. Admission is free for anyone who brings a dish, large or small. The goals of this first annual GIANT Potluck are to raise awareness about sustainable foods, to reach more people than the club normally does, to spread ideas of sustainable food culture, and to encourage a community-type environment.

Posters outside the room announce the event and invite students inside with their contributions. The two girls seated at the sign-in table directly under the posters check people in, requesting their name, email address, and whether their food was prepared sanitarily. Also, depending on their dish, attendees are given a colored index card on which to write the ingredients. A green index card identifies a vegetarian dish, a blue index card identifies a vegan dish, and a pink index card is for a dish that is neither. Students bring their dishes into the event to place them and their cards on a long buffet table at the back of the large, hollow room. The club is small, and hopeful that the 80 Potluck RSVPs will show up. Real Food Challenge Co-president Alexandre Colavin greets everyone with a nervous, but thankful smile, “Thanks for coming.”

The Real Food Challenge club hopes to promote the idea of “real food” on campus at UCI. But the term “real food” sounds vague. What does it mean? Real food revolves around the cultivation of food and the collective market around food. It starts with the land or the environment. Then there are the people who work directly with the land, the farm workers, their families and their communities. Next are the producers, the larger farmers, the distributors, and the delivery people. The last group is the consumers, those who purchase and eat the food. However, these four components of the food system are not equally represented and in some cases, aren’t mutually aware of each other. For example, most consumers have very little idea how their food gets to the supermarkets. RFC’s idea is to try to maximize a system to benefit all four aspects of this system. They hope to make it a healthier, more efficient, fair and sustainable system. Foods that address all of these cohesively are real foods. “Organic isn’t always sustainable,” says Colavin, pointing out that organic foods grown out of season still require energy to simulate their seasons with heating, cooling, or light. Fair-trade bananas from Peru, for example, still have to travel thousands of miles to get to California supermarkets.

Because there are so many aspects to consider, the Real Food Challenge National Network developed a calculator or algorithm using a spreadsheet that prescribes a value to how much real food is being purchased by an institution. It includes the elements of locally grown, organic, sustainable, and fair trade in the calculations. First it must be determined which foods are considered “real food” according to a guide of standards in the RFC Calculator Guide, like Fair Trade Certified Coffee. Then the calculations begin. In keeping with the coffee example, let’s say that UCI spends $200,000 on coffee total, and $125,000 on the fair-trade coffee. Then according to the Calculator, UCI spends 62.5% on real coffee. This percentage is combined with the percentages of other food categories like, beef, eggs, and produce, to calculate the total amount of real food purchasing. Two years ago, the Real Food Calculator assessed UCI Dining and found that they were only at about 10% real food. The hope is to get to 20% real food by 2020 as all of the UC campuses have pledged to do.

"The shared meal elevates eating from a mechanical process of fueling the body to a ritual of family and community, from the mere animal biology to an act of culture." -Michael Pollan

The quiet indie, jazz, and Spanish acoustic guitar music coming from Colavin’s IPod fills the giant empty space and high ceilings of Doheny Beach AB room. “I feel like I’m in a Charlie Brown movie,” said an RFC member with a nametag made of a recycled paper bag that reads “Collette”. The room has 17 tables, each with 8 chairs, most of which are still empty. Many of the potluck attendees have brought their own utensils, plates and cups, but there is biodegradable Greenware provided by UCI Dining for those who did not. All of the waste, including the Greenware, will be composted at Mesa Commons after the event. The food on the buffet tables ranges from banana guacamole with tortilla chips, to a potatoes and carrots dish with curry sauce, to blackberry bread pudding, and variations of Thanksgiving favorites, like turkey, cranberry, and snap pea sandwiches, organic pumpkin bread, and all-natural pumpkin pie. There’s plenty of food. There are also large carafes of lemonade and unsweetened iced tea provided for attendees. It’s 11:45a.m. now and the group is only about 10 people. They fill the seats of the first table at the front of the room, and begin to eat their selections from the diverse spread.

The Real Food Challenge National Network is a collaboration between the California Student Sustainability Coalition and the Food Project. The Network’s purpose is to advocate and promote healthy, natural, and sustainable foods for college campuses. Nationally, colleges spend $4 billion every year on food. The goal of the Real Food Challenge is to effectively move $1 billion of the annual spending to real food by 2020, about 20% of the total spending of U.S. campuses. The hope is to use the purchasing power of the universities and colleges to shift the entire national food system to more sustainable and “real” foods. Since its inception in the fall of 2008, there have been at least twenty colleges and universities to join the national network. Students are creating their own campus gardens, changing college curriculums and food policies, educating their fellow students, and promoting sustainability action.

The UCI chapter was founded in the fall of 2008 by two activist undergraduates, Hai Vo and Kelsey Meagher, both of whom have since graduated. They adopted the RFC national network constitution and began working with UCI Dining in improving the quality of food on campus. Co-Presidents Alexandre Colavin and Alexandra Nagy now head the 20-person group that, last quarter was only 5 or 6 close friends. RFC has a broader focus than most other sustainability groups on campus. “We’re not just looking at the environmental effects of food,” says Colavin. “We’re looking at social, economic, and the individual effects of food.” UCI’s Real Food Challenge looks at very local change, and only works with UCI Dining and UCI Administration and UCI students. “We’re very local-based,” says Colavin.

The group is also diverse. Members have a variety of majors like biology, social science, physics, urban planning, and a variety of food philosophies. Some are vegetarian. Some are vegan. Some are none of the above.

“Our club is lucky because what we’re addressing is extremely general,” says Colavin. “Everyone likes food. Everyone likes to eat. It’s impossible not to eat.”

Alexandre Colavin, is a fourth-year Physics major, who unicycles to class and has been involved in RFC since the beginning. He isn’t vegetarian or vegan, but he cooks about 90% of his meals at home with ingredients purchased mostly from local farmer’s markets. He’s very aware of what he eats, and says that he tries not to be elitist. Colavin admits to enjoying an In-N-Out burger every once in a while, and munching on chips at parties. “The idea isn’t generally to make sure everyone eats only real food,” says Colavin. “It’s just to raise awareness that food is something that is more than just a plastic-wrapped item at the supermarket, there’s a lot more behind that.”

The other Co-President is Alexandra Nagy. She is a fourth-year Political Science and Urban Studies major, who also unicycles, and has recently gotten into growing her own food. “I have little beds on my patio, says Nagy. “I just got a yard-by-yard plot in [Vista Del Campo housing community].” She’s also neither vegetarian nor vegan, but won’t eat fast food or anything from the frozen food aisle of the supermarket. She considers herself to be a pescatarian, but admits that she’ll eat meat other than fish on occasion. “I’ll eat meat only if it’s free,” says Nagy. “I won’t put my own dollar towards it, but if there’s a free meat meal available at an event, I’ll eat it.” Partly, she doesn’t want to refuse meat and offend anyone. “Meat can be such a cultural staple in someone’s diet, and I’m very cautious about cultural boundaries, but I don’t buy it.”

“But that's the challenge -- to change the system more than it changes you."-Michael Pollan

By 12:40p.m., halfway through the two and a half hour event, the initial group of 10 or 11 people has expanded to 16. Colavin is making his rounds, greeting every person that comes through the door. Both Colavin and Nagy are optimistic, but there is a mild awareness of the emptiness of the room. Three of the tables have been pushed together, and everyone seems to know everyone else from one gardening and green event or another. They had set up six of the front tables with piles of pens and note cards. Now, those vacant table setups expose a disappointment. The conversations are intelligent and hardly run-of-the-mill. Discussions around the three tables include early childhood development and earth appreciation teachings to capitalism and sustainability. Alexandra smiles brightly and acknowledges the lacking numbers, “Well, we had hoped for more of a turnout, but thanks everyone for coming.” She then leads the “Check In” or introduction of the attendees. Each person around the now triangular table arrangement states their name, and their favorite Thanksgiving food. Robert Perez, the Director of ARAMARK at UCI, sits down to join the conversations. ARAMARK is the company that provides the food services on campus. Perez was supposed to give a speech at the event, but he’s now able to hold a more intimate roundtable discussion. He’s the Sustainability Steward for the West Coast Region at ARAMARK, but came to talk as a passionate citizen. Perez begins, “What is your part? How can you make a measurable difference?”

Some of RFC’s past accomplishments include trayless dining in residential dining halls, the elimination of Styrofoam in residential and retail locations on campus, the implementation of vegetarian and vegan options, and recycling at all of the dining locations. In fact, the Jamba Juice on campus is the only Jamba Juice location not to use Styrofoam cups for its smoothies. RFC works on multiple events and campaigns at the same time. Currently, they’re working on two campaigns.

The first is the Anteater Garden Initiative, a student-run, on-campus, education-based garden. It takes up a lot of the group’s time. Colavin and Nagy spearheaded the concept at the beginning of last year. By the end of fall quarter 2009, they had over 100 pledge hours of gardening. By spring quarter 2010, they had $20,000 from UCI’s The Green Initiative Fund and by the end of summer 2010, they were given access to a quarter acre of land, an old volleyball court space in the Arroyo Vista housing community. They now have everything they need, and expect to break ground during the first week of January 2011. Colavin contends that the purpose of the garden isn’t to produce food, but to have the emphasis being on education.

“We want this to be an extension of the classroom by providing students with food education in three ways,” says Colavin. “The first way is just by the presence of the garden, students will be exposed to what is in season, where their food comes from, etc. The second way is just by gardening the land, having volunteers working the land, weeding, watering, harvesting, and eating. The third way is by hosting workshops at the garden on how to compost for example, or how to cook kale, or how to grow asparagus. So the emphasis is all on education, not only on the food.”

This Anteater Garden will also be unique at UCI, since most of the current gardens on campus are individually plot-based. Other gardens have long waiting lists, or they’re restricted to specific housing complexes. RFC’s Anteater Garden Initiative is going to be one giant plot with no waiting list and no restrictions aside from being a UCI student.

The second campaign is the Food Systems Working Group (FSWG) or “Fizz-wig,” a group of people that are involved in the UCI food services in some way, including students, administrators, managers, and chefs. Every quarter, FWSG meets and discusses projects to improve or increase the real food percentage, as well as to educate the community at UCI. The group is not solely a part of UCI either. Every UC campus has a FSWG or is setting one up. The groups are meant to hold their campuses responsible for the pledges made to achieve 20% real food by 2020. They’re the enforcers.

FSWG holds educational events such as the recent Weigh the Waste events. During the event, held in different dining halls on campus, they take the food that students didn’t eat and weigh how much food is thrown away and wasted. The purpose is to raise awareness about wasting food, especially since the dining halls are all-you-can-eat, and often people take more food then they’ll eat. RFC and FSWG’s Weigh the Waste events have helped reduce food waste by 50% in some places, cutting the usual 400 lbs of food tossed away each night in half.

At UCI, FSWG with UCI Dining was able to create a paid UCI Dining Sustainability Intern position. Alfredo Tigerino is the first and current intern. Tigerino is a fourth-year Psychology and Social Behaviors major, and a vegetarian who makes all of his own meals. He joined RFC last fall and after reading Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, became interested in nutrition. This quarter as the Sustainability Intern, he’s focusing on and planning events that emphasize nutrition, like a screening of the film “Chow Down” and also the Real Food Dinner event. The “Chow Down” movie screening was held in Pippin Commons the week before the Potluck. The informative film followed the lives of citizens reversing their heart ailments, through a strict plant-based diet. Tigerino will also be doing the Real Food Assessment this winter.

For his yearlong internship, Tigerino goes to the various dining locations, meets with the directors, and looks at all their produce and food items. “I try to assist them or inform them of items that could be purchased instead,” says Tigerino. “That way our community is getting the best quality food.”

Tigerino describes his internship as “pretty much a little bit of everything.” He holds dining locations accountable, and audits their purchasing. He holds educational events to inform students of better and more nutritional choices, and conduct marketing efforts for more sustainable options.

“We’re very lucky here at UCI to have established a relationship with UCI Dining, “ says Tigerino. “So far, everyone seems open, though sometimes I feel awkward asking them to change things.”

The job also has given him an understanding of how ARAMARK works on campus, that it revolves around the student customer. “If the customer wants fries and deep-fried stuff then they have to supply that,” says Tigerino. “That’s why I hold educational events so that people will start voting with their forks. I want people to look at things critically.”

"We ask for too much salvation by legislation. All we need to do is empower individuals with the right philosophy and the right information to opt out en masse.”-Michael Pollan

It’s 1:02p.m. and the 19 people who have attended the potluck are listening intently as Perez continues his points, calling for more education and more involvement.

“Change needs a majority who wants the change,” says Perez. “There are only about 10% of the people on campus who care about this issue.”

“That’s probably a high number,” says Colavin.

“Groups are more successful if they work through organizations and companies, rather than against them,” says Perez.

The discussion starts up. People begin to interject and propose ideas of educating students to cook for themselves, after they leave the sanctuary of the dining halls.

“There’s so much more that needs to be done,” says Perez.

“What do you want to see from RFC?” asks Colavin.

“I’d love to see a room like this filled up,” replies Perez.

Reporting Notes:

11/10/10 – Attended a 1 hour routine RFC meeting for observation

11/13/10 - 1 hour and 15min interview with co-president Alexandre Colavin

11/17/10 – attended 2 hour screening of Chow Down and subsequent discussion

11/18/10 – 45 minute interview with co-president Alexandra Nagy

11/18/10 – interview with UCI Dining Sustainability Intern Alfredo Tigerino

11/22/10 – interview with RFC member Sandy Chirico

11/23/10 – attended and observed 2 hour RFC GIANT Potluck Event





Pollan, Michael. The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. 1st ed. New York, NY: The Penguin Press, 2006. Print.


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