Sustainable food initiatives seek to reform campus food culture

Members of the faculty and campus community take action to change attitudes toward food consumption and production, according to sources in the Student Environmental Center.

“There’s been a lot of energy around understanding ecological agriculture, understanding community engagement around food, and also ‘Where does that food go to,’ and ‘Who is it impacting,’” said Carolina Arias, senior at UNC Asheville and co-director of the SEC.

The SEC’s multifaceted approach focuses on growing food in the many campus and community gardens, educating students on the impacts of their choices and also providing outlets for the waste and uneaten food around the university, Arias said.

Last semester, the SEC partnered with local non-profit Food Connection to distribute uneaten food from Brown Hall to those in need in the Asheville area, according to Sonia Marcus, director of sustainability at UNCA.

“Dining services is really centrally involved in this partnership with Food Connection to get our uneaten food out to people in the community,” Marcus said.

The SEC recently distributed free compost bins for food waste to allow interested students to collect their own compost in dorms and elsewhere, which can then be deposited at the various new collection sites around campus, Marcus said.

UNCA alumna Emma Hutchens works as regional coordinator for the Real Food Challenge, an organization petitioning campus dining programs to include at least 20 percent “real” food by 2020.

“Real” food, according to Hutchens, ideally includes locally- and humanely-sourced, sustainably-farmed, fair-trade organic food, which might seem like a large order for Chartwells, UNCA’s food service provider.

“Compass Group, of which Chartwells is a subsidiary, brings in roughly as much money as McDonald’s globally, and nobody has ever heard of them,” Hutchens said.

Hutchens worked on the Real Food Challenge while enrolled at UNCA and then became a fellow with the organization before assuming her current role in the organization.

Hutchens and the students she worked with were close to getting a commitment from Anne Ponder, former UNCA chancellor, before her retirement in 2014. With the change in chancellors came the necessity to form new relationships among the university’s administration, slowing progress significantly.

Now partnered with the SEC, Hutchens and the Real Food Challenge are working with Chartwells to provide less-processed food options at Brown Hall.

“We’ve had a great experience with Chartwells at UNCA; they were always willing to talk to us,” Hutchens said. “They definitely are doing work to source sustainably and mostly local food.”

Despite this, Hutchens said it is important for students to remain vigilant and active about the dining program in order to facilitate actual change in Chartwells’ corporate-structured food program.

When reached for comment, all Chartwells staff, including the food program auditor, declined to speak on record due to legally binding confidentiality agreements.

“At the end of the day, it’s important that students run the campaign, because you’re the ones spending money on food, and you should decide how that money is spent,” Hutchens said.

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