It’s true that students care deeply about food. We relish Swings and its seemingly endless bounty of spicy fries and cookie dough, we fight, in a literal hunger game, to attain one of those first-three-eat-free spots at S&C, and when in a time crunch, we are indebted to the convenience of Summies take-out. We eagerly await our weekly co-op shares, and stand in inordinately long lines for Mongolian Grill and bowls of spaghetti with rosé sauce.
But three of the five brains behind the University’s Real Food Challenge (RFC) club—Rachel Eisman ’16, Claudia Flores ’16, and Alex Fireman ’16—believe that students do not think about food nearly enough. Eisman, Flores, and Fireman suggested in a recent interview that our appreciation of food is actually rather shallow. Although University students love to conceptualize and even tend to err on the side of the over-analytical, we rarely think beyond the superficial attributes or personal implications when it comes to the food on our plates, and especially how that food might be affecting the environment.
It is precisely this lack of awareness that the RFC club seeks to correct among the University student body. According to Eisman, the group grew from a club that began while she, Flores, and Fireman as well as Savannah Morehouse ’16 and Emma Sherman ’17 were underclassmen.
“[RFC] used to be a club called WesFresh that seniors and juniors before us were leading,” Eisman said. “Then our sophomore year, some of the leaders at that point were teaching a student forum that all of us ended up taking….We ended up revamping the club after that because [the club’s leaders] kind of let it die.”
As all three explained, both the former group, WesFresh, and the current RFC club are connected to the national Real Food Challenge organization. Fireman talked briefly about the institution’s primary motive.
“The national organization has this goal of switching 20 percent of University budgets to real food,” she said. “Within that, they go to different campuses and start these clubs to get students interested.”
Defining “real food” by the qualifications used by the RFC, Fireman elucidated how this process of budget redistribution takes place.
“[The RFC] qualifies real food as either local, fair trade, humane to animals, or ecologically sustainable,” she said. “If [a product] fits into one of those categories and doesn’t get disqualified for any other reason, then it counts as real food.”
Although the organization is shaped by a seemingly straightforward goal, a goal that Michael Roth committed the University to by contract in 2012, the seniors revealed that jumpstarting the RFC initiative has been a rather painstaking process, requiring a great deal of time, concentration, and cooperation on the part of both the students and the administration.
“It’s been pretty complex,” Flores said. “It’s been sort of a trial and error period, just in terms of working out the kinks of leading a student group that is also connected to a national organization and tries to engage students.”
To start the main initiative of redistribution, Eisman, Flores, and Fireman have focused solely on the food bought for the Usdan Marketplace. In explaining the cataloguing process used to analyze whether or not the items purchased are “real” by RFC standards, Eisman gave more insight into the challenges they’ve encountered in their work.
“We have access to invoices [provided by Bon Appetit],” she said. “So we go into the invoices for…October as representative of the first semester and then February for the second semester, and we just kind of look at everything purchased in the Usdan marketplace for that month.”
Fireman provided further details about this research.
“In order to calculate how we’re doing with [our goal] we run the RFC’s calculator system,” she said. “We input all the food your dining hall is purchasing and do a bunch of research on where that food is from, and we qualify it as ‘real’ or ‘unreal.’ Then we get a percentage of how much of it is real food, and based on that percentage we have been working with Bon Appetit to try to look into what products we can be shifting.”
Because this task demands much of the energy the University team has put towards extending the goals of the RFC, the club has historically had difficulties with reaching out to the campus community and gaining a wider base of student support. According to Eisman, however, this semester, with most of its calculations already complete, the group’s situation has become more favorable.
“The exciting thing about this semester is that we have done [it] once already, so now we shouldn’t have to do all the research again,” she said. “That means we can kind of move on with more exciting projects than just calculating.”
Much like the students who previously ran WesFresh, the RFC has gained a great deal of support through the student forum Eisman and Fireman established this semester.
“We’re leading a student forum called ‘Food, Justice, and Sustainability at Wesleyan and Beyond,’” Fireman said. “We have a lot of freshmen which is good, and we have a lot of people who are interested in continuing the RFC work in conjunction with the forum.”
Flores also spoke in favor of the forum, applauding the class as an interactive, hands-on way of studying.
“We think the student forum is a really good base,” she said. “It’s really great just to have this dual learning experience, where you’re learning about food justice issues in general and applying them on Wesleyan’s campus.”
The club was also able to boost student interest through their recent “Real Food Workshop.” Facilitated by Wesleyan’s RFC Regional Coordinator, Amanda Jacir, this event served as a discussion-based introduction to the industrial food system and its relationship to students and universities. As it was open to those involved in the forum as well as any other interested students on campus, the workshop, according to the seniors, sparked a meaningful and multifaceted conversation.
“It sort of developed into this brainstorming—like what can we do here at Wesleyan? How can we make a change?” said Flores.
Eisman elaborated on Flores’s remark.
“It was really interesting to see how people come at food through different angles,” she said. “For some people, it’s about the economic aspect. For other people, it’s about the animals. For some people it’s about the farm workers. There are so many ways to engage with and think about food, which is something we’re trying to emphasize.”
Though other specific events have yet to be planned, Eisman, Fireman, and Flores are motivated by the broad goal of expanding the RFC network on Wesleyan’s campus to different facets of the student body.
“I think that in our first two semesters of working with the Real Food Challenge, the people that approached us most were coming from an environmental perspective, which has been really interesting and helpful in ways, but we’re trying to work with a broader interest group,” Flores said.
As Fireman suggested, gaining this diversity will be largely dependent on the connections the club makes with other student groups.
“One of our big goals this semester is to reach out to other students on campus, like social justice groups, and form coalitions and projects,” she said.
On the whole, coordinating the RFC club has been and continues to be a strenuous, slow-moving process. However, working with Bon Appetit, a company that all three seniors agreed is attentive and agreeable in its individual sustainability efforts, has also been greatly rewarding for the team in its entirety. Flores spoke briefly on this account.
“Honestly, Bon Appetit is pretty commendable,” she said. “They do a lot of good things for farm workers, the environment, and so on. It’s also been a learning experience in terms of now we know about what it takes to investigate your food back to the source, which I feel is something that a lot of people don’t realize is a really difficult thing to do.”
With the promise of food-based projects from their student forum as well as potential partnerships with groups such as Hunger and Homelessness and the local co-op, the group remains optimistic that their efforts will come to fruition in the near future. Talking excitedly about the big picture of the RFC, Eisman expressed this optimism.
“If we target our dining halls, we’re shaping the market of the food system in the US and probably, indirectly, abroad too,” she said. “We’re demanding certain kinds of food, they’re purchasing that kind of food, and food producers have to produce in that way. So it’s kind of adding up our impact to change the shape of the food system.”
Although the impact discussed here is promising, the RFC club—Eisman included—is well aware that evidence of such effects will not be visible for quite some time. This truth, however, is not a source of discouragement by any means. For now, the three seniors and the rest of the team will remain focused on getting people to think critically about their food.
“I don’t want people to blindly eat their food and not think about where it’s from, and who it’s affecting, and what it’s affecting,” Fireman said. “I think about food constantly; all the time I’m thinking about it, and I want people to get as excited about it as I am.”