“Lack of scientific knowledge is my justification,” says current UCI Real Food Challenge co-President Alexandre Colavin. “I don’t know what these chemicals are going to do to me – whether they’re going to hurt me or not hurt me.”
“If you didn’t eat shit, you wouldn’t need medication,” says Danny Man, a current member of the club. “What’s important to us is that people know the impact of their food choices on the farmers, the world, and most importantly, themselves.”
Bean sprouts, carrots, tomatoes, squash… who would’ve thought these plants would have made a difference?
…In the world?
The Real Food Challenge chapter (RFC) at the University of California, Irvine thinks so. Whether or not the food we eat is real – meaning that it was actually grown in soil and not chemically enhanced – affects society. Food can change the world. Aside from meeting every Wednesday to maneuver their movement – “the Food Movement,” this group of college students holds larger events (such as their Real Food Dinner done in association with UCI dining) and launched the ASUCI garden in Arroyo Vista this spring. They are UCI’s very own food activists.
The Real Food Challenge is a national organization dedicated to reallocating the four billion dollars spent each year on food to more “real” food and less processed foods. For the University of California specifically, the Real Food Challenge is working with the UC Sustainable Food Services Working Group in hopes of achieving 20% “real” food in dining halls by 2020. It has representatives in over 300 colleges across the United States. They hold leadership summits and encourage networking as a means of expanding their campaign.
The Food Movement was brought to UCI in part by Hai Vo, a UCI class of 2009 graduate who co-started the Real Food Challenge chapter at UCI. Formerly overweight and a victim of Type 2 Diabetes, Hai made, as he describes, a complete 180 shift in what he was eating when he came to college. “It was April and I was graduating in 2 months. I was looking at pictures of myself, and I hadn’t looked at myself in a long time. I was like, ‘Who is that?’ I was looking at someone who was unreal to me. And so I put on shorts, a headband, and a sweater and I would just run around my block at 11 o’ clock at night because I didn’t want anyone to see me. I remember once I was sprinting on the sidewalk… until, by the time I got to the end of the street, I threw up everything I had eaten earlier that day.” In the summer of 2008, Hai started farming, studying food history, and doing research on his own. What I choose to eat,” says Hai, “is based on my health, what I feel in my gut after I eat it, and that I know these are foods my mom or my grandparents [who are Vietnamese] would have eaten growing up. …In terms of what I’m trying to do right now some can say it is as ‘halioprimal’ (what people ate before the Industrial Revolution) so I look at evolutionary nutrition and how people sustained and survived years ago.”
“What would it look like,” inquires Hai, “if people in our society started eating what their grandparents started eating – that would totally change how we use our land, our water, and how we interact with each other. For me, food is not only a human right and something that I need to survive, but I think it’s something that can be used to change our social systems and inequalities. Food can shape society.”
Hai’s ‘food religion’ is real food. “I’m not religious but I’m very spiritual. And I can say that I believe in real food – food that truly nourishes our bodies and also nourishes the people who produce it. That nourishes consumers, our environment, and our communities.”
When Hai goes grocery shopping, he looks for things that have very little processing. “I look for things that don’t have words I can’t understand or pronounce, that don’t have refined sugar, wheat, or things like natural flavoring, soy aceletes, or hydrologized proteins.” Things that are not wrapped in plastic, that are not shiny. He will only trust food that is USC organic or food alliance certified or if's manufactured from a company that has its own certification. If Hai has any questions about the ingredients, he calls the food manufacturers himself. However, Hai rarely shops -- he's mostly growing his own food. He’d grow his own carrots, slice them, let them pickle for a very long time, and then, of course, eat them.
In addition to accessibility, convenience is also a topic to think about. Hai, who has full-time working parents and a brother who’s trying to make a living as an artist, says “it’s really hard for people who are preoccupied with other things to think about cooking everything from scratch. For me, it’s what I need to do. For me, it’s a luxury to cook from scratch.”
Today, Hai is a community outreach fellow with the California Food and Justice Coalition and coordinates LiveReal, an online community that he had co-founded meant to engage youth with food culture and politics.------------------------------------------------
On Wednesday May 18, 5:30 p.m., the Real Food Challenge at UCI held their fourth annual Real Food Dinner at the Silverado Room at Mesa Commons. This year’s theme is Real Food Accessibility. Black cloths cover the tables of Mesa Common’s Silverado Room. On each table is a tab that says, “Taste Don’t Waste!” The event is being filmed. There are about 100 people here. The food, which the many present have vocalized excitement over, is spread out over a long table, dish next to dish and ending with the desserts. The event hasn’t started yet, and the sound of chatter envelopes the room. As Alfredo, a current RFC member and the Sustainability Intern with UCI dining, brings the attention to the front, the chatter finally quiets downs. “We’re working close to UCI dining to meet our goal of 20% real food by 2020,” he announces to everyone. Later Alfredo asks if anyone was surprised at the survey results of the survey everyone had to take to register for the event. “I was really surprised that someone ate grass-fed beef 10 times a week,” someone says.
Alfredo finally introduces the panel: UCI Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Timothy J. Bradley, Aramark representative Robert Perez (Aramark is UCI’s food vendor), co-founder and executive director of the Grain Project Lara Montagne (the Grain Project is a Santa-Ana-based non-profit organization that promotes sustainable communities through farmer’s markets, community gardens, and public art), and UCI undergraduate Colin Murphy (who is the co-founder and current coordinator of the Arroyo Vista Sustainability House). The two chefs o the night are Chef Baca and Chef Juan. Chef Baca comes up to the platform and describes the menu: a green salad with pickled oranges, goat cheese, and red onions; another salad using “simple sea salt,” olive oil, lemon juice, and balsamic; grilled asparagus with roasted garlic and balsamic; fish with very little seasoning; “simple charbroiled chicken breast glazed with a little bit of cheri”; vegetarian pasta with alfalfa beans; and home-made beignets and pecan and crust bits for dessert. Water, trade coffee, and natural lemonade are served for drinks. Their inspiration, Baca says, was the farmers, and all of the produce they used came from real farmers situated 250 miles away. “I hope we all appreciate the farmers who’ve provided us with this food,” Alfredo says. Then everyone was dismissed to get their food. Munch away!
“How’s the food?” Alfredo inquires in the middle of dinner.
The people holler (“whoo!”) and yell back their answers from their tables:
The panel finally starts. How can sustainable foods be made more accessible to people? Alfredo asks. Sustainable foods are known for being harder to find in grocery stores, and more expensive. Lower income individuals, then, are out of luck when it comes to access. Lara is the first to answer the question. It is true that this discrepancy, she says, exists. Irvine, for instance, has great resources, such as the farmer’s market. Santa Ana, on the other hand, is a food desert (the term for a lower-socioeconomic area where sustainable foods are difficult to obtain). Bradley interjects, “the first things that need to be dealt with are affordability, transportation (and the proximity of suppliers to communities), and education (some people don’t know what “real food” is).” Food access is all about social integrity, Colin adds. Lara agrees – there is definitely a type of social discrimination going on here. Their goal is to end this discrimination, and to repress food insecurity (the state of people going hungry regularly).
The real issue is the lack of interest in sustainable foods, says Bradley. Until enough people become interested in sustainable foods, prices will remain high. But people should be interested, he adds – “promoting sustainable foods is promoting your local environment.”
Good food is expensive and bad food is cheap, says Colin. There are economic barriers all around us. “You can’t separate food access from poverty and inequality. Wealthy people look down on poor people as if they’re not doing enough to provide for their families. But we know this isn’t true.”
From the crowd, current Real Food Challenge co-president Alexandre Colavin poses a question for Professor Bradley. “There is a food desert in college students’ fridges,” Alex starts off. “I know you ask your students to keep a log of what they eat for a whole two days. I was wondering, what were the results?” “For my students at least,” answers Professor Bradley, fruits and vegetables are endangered species. It makes you wonder what the American diet’s composed of, which is certainly not the best diet.”
How about the government? Are there ways of making change through interaction with them?
“At the Real Food Challenge,” Colin says, “we’ve realized that the food system is broken. My question is… how can a food system that is harmful to consumers possibly provide something good – nourishment – to the people it feeds? What I think we should do,” says Colin, “is overhaul the Farm Bill (a federal bill that funds for the production of cellulosic ethanol, research for pests, diseases, and other agricultural problems). For the past 60 years, however, the Farm Bill has been written by big business and doesn’t reflect the nourishment people really need.”
“For me,” says Bradley, “I don’t think we can do much to change the political system, but I do think support is the real solution.”
The question of education also came up. “I think we need to incorporate ‘food literacy’ into our curriculum,” says Colin. “People do not know the history of the food they eat. We need to learn about food in a more scientific way. The food movement needs to constitute what is actually good for the human body.”
In the middle of the discussion, Alexandre Covalin comments on the ASUCI garden: “We created a garden not to grow food, but to ‘grow’ students… because food is not on the school curriculum. We need to teach students not to learn how to farm but to think about where their food came from. We need to expose them to these kinds of things as much as possible.”
Lara adds, “The garden we have for the Grain Project is also a learning garden. We want to expose kids to the acts of planting, growing, and, you know, pulling that carrot out. This is a place where all sorts of subjects are taught.”
The ASUCI garden – named “Ants in your Plants” – is located in the Arroyo Vista quad, and expands about ¼ of an acre. According to its Facebook page, it is “dedicated to educating students on sustainable agriculture, and its relationship to the earth, economy, community and them.” Some foods grown in the garden are watermelon, basil, chives, and pumpkin. “I think the garden is going to be a wonderful example for people who nothing about where their food comes from,” says Charlene Bradley, the ASUCI Community Garden Organizer.
Once the panel finished, everyone breaks into groups to discuss the topics that’ve been brought up. A girl in my group, a 2nd year Film and Media and Business Economics major named Marissa Mekvichitsaeng offers her criticisms on what has been discussed, taking an economic point of view: “What about supply? If we increase demand we’ll have to increase supply, and that would be a threat to our natural wild life. We wouldn’t want that. On the other hand, if we increase demand, prices will go up (because of supply, and their always trying to reach a state of equilibrium), and so we wouldn’t be able to afford it. The reason why we have pesticides is because it’s efficient and affordable. What I think we need to focus on is technological advances.”
-- It’s a different take on things, but this just shows that how to make the world a more sustainable place is still a matter of debate.
If everyone wants to change the world, then the members of the Real Food Challenge at UCI are definitely doing what they can. With one seed at a time, it is not impossible to attain a future of sustainability – to protect human bodies, and to protect the Earth.Notes:
1 - 1:15 hour interview with Hai Vo
30 minute interview with Lyndon Forrester
20 minute interview with Danny Man
4 hour observation from weekly meetings (1 hour each week)
3 hour observation at the Real Food Dinner
(Colin Murphy's LinkedIn Account) http://www.linkedin.com/in/murphyc1
(Colin Murphy's personal WordPress) http://sophius.wordpress.com/
(The Grain Project) http://www.grainproject.org/grainproject.htm