What’s with all the chicken tenders? That’s been the question on the minds of students since a new serving station appeared in the Dining Center after winter break, decorated with signs advertising the school’s commitment to the Real Food Challenge.
As it turns out, the chicken tenders aren’t just a temporary addition. According to Tom Mitchell, the new General Manager of Haverford’s Dining Services, the DC actually designed the new station around the processed poultry products.
Through the Common Market, a Philadelphia food distributor, Dining Center staff found a local cage-free chicken supplier. Their product: chicken tenders. “Hence,” says Mitchell, “the beginning of the Real Food Challenge station.”
At its core, the Real Food Challenge is a student-led movement to push colleges and universities towards purchasing food that is “local & community-based, fair, ecologically sound, and humane,” according to the Challenge’s website. So far, 43 institutions have signed onto the challenge, agreeing to spend a minimum of 20% of their dining budget on food that falls into at least one of these four categories.
Some nearby schools, including Lehigh University and McDaniel College, are among that number, but Haverford is the only signatory in the Tri-Co.
Haverford pledged its commitment to the Real Food Challenge in 2016, after the passage of a Plenary resolution that year. The resolution was drafted and presented by ETHOS, a student group that has remained the driving force for changing the school’s food policy.
“Our role is to implement the Real Food Challenge at Haverford,” said Sophie Drew ’19, one of the leaders of ETHOS.
After passing the Plenary resolution, ETHOS members worked with the administration to set up two other groups as part of the Real Food Challenge. There’s the Food Systems Working Group—charmingly abbreviated as “FSWG” and pronounced “fizz-wig”—which is composed of DC staff and students appointed by Students’ Council. A FSWG exists at every school participating in the Real Food Challenge, where it’s tasked with managing the implementation process of the Challenge.
Then there is the Calculating Group. They are the students, employed by the DC, who actually check the DC’s invoices to determine how close the school is to hitting its goal of 20%. In turn, the Calculating Group reports to FSWG, so that the Dining Services managers can decide their next steps.
Some students greeted the Real Food station with enthusiasm. Hunter Logan ’22 remarked, “I’ve been waiting my entire life for an excuse to eat as many chicken tenders as possible.”
However, others were confused about the definition of “Real Food” under the challenge—especially given that the new station often lacked fruits and vegetables. “It certainly fulfills the function of food. But is it ‘real’?” questioned Gillian Guss ’22.
According to Drew, what counts as Real Fool is actually fairly simple. There are the qualifiers and the disqualifiers, she said, for each item served by the DC. To count towards the 20% goal, an item must fall into at least one of four qualifiers: “local”, “fair”, “ecologically sound”, or “humane”. A handbook provided to all Real Food Challenge signatory schools lists all the ways that an item can meet these requirements.
For example, a product could qualify as “humane” by being “Animal Welfare Approved”, a designation given by the organization A Greener World. But two separate levels of approval exist.
There’s a Green Light for products that “best represent the standard” of Real Food, as described on the Challenge’s website, and a Yellow Light for those that “do not represent the fullest expression of the standard,” but nevertheless count as Real Food. While a USDA Organic certification translates into a Green Light from Real Food, Fair Trade USA certification only gets you a Yellow Light.
There are also the disqualifiers, which include the use of prison labor, repeated citations for labor violations, certain ingredients used in highly processed foods, and—perhaps more controversially—the inclusion of any genetically modified organisms (GMOs). However, given the widespread nature of GMOs in the American food system, the handbook does include an exception for “trace amounts” of genetically-modified ingredients.
To meet the 20% goal, Drew said that FSWG is primarily focusing on getting more foods in the Dining Center that count as “local”—and they are succeeding. As of September 2018, the most recent month for which the Dining Center provided data to The Clerk, 60% of products that qualified for the Real Food Challenge were “local”, while “fair” and “ecological” took 20% each. Interestingly, no Dining Center products met the requirements for being listed as “humane” by Real Food standards.
Mitchell explained the process of switching to local vendors. When he saw that the previous milk supplier was an interstate consortium of farms located all around the Northeast, he wanted to find alternatives.
He sought out the dining programs team at Johns Hopkins University, another Real Food Challenge signatory school.
“They said, ‘You should buy from Clover Farms for your dairy. They’re local and they only buy milk from local farmers,’” said Mitchell. Cue a “painstaking month” of attempting to find the distributor—but eventually, a contract with Clover Farms to become the new provider of dairy products in the DC.
While local dairy is only slightly more expensive, according to Mitchell, that’s not the case for other items.
“The one thing we were trying to really get was liquid eggs, because we use a ton of that in the omelette bar,” he said. “But the price is just ridiculous. It’s like three times the amount: $70 versus $25.” That forced him to drop the idea. Overall, Challenge-qualified foods are slightly more expensive than their conventional counterparts.
To offset the cost of the Real Food Challenge, Dining Services has put some labor-intensive, expensive items on the chopping block.
“We decided to have pineapple only on the weekends,” explained Mitchell. “It’s almost like a sacrificed item.” The chocolate pudding and jello station, conceived as a healthy dessert option, met a similar fate. After hearing from the cooks that the food often went uneaten, Mitchell decided to rotate those items through the salad bar instead in a bid to reduce waste and cost.
Mitchell expressed confidence that Haverford is well on its way to hitting its 20% goal by 2020. And he has some bold ideas for the future. The Dining Center could move to a plant-forward mindset, for both cost and environmental reasons. “We have flank steak every week in a six-week cycle menu,” said Mitchell. “So we have it three times.” As possible alternatives, he suggested salmon or veggie burgers.
Collaboration with the Haverfarm may also be in the cards, as the Real Food Challenge schools that have seen the most success are the ones that operate their own farms. Mitchell outlined his vision of how this might work: “Imagine if you’re scheduled for a four-hour shift [at the Dining Center]. You go work at the Haverfarm for two hours, harvest some stuff, bring it here, wash it, clean it, chop it, put it on the salad bar and that’s your day.”
Mitchell also seemed open to student suggestions and feedback. When a group of vegan students requested more meatless Mondays, he told them, “I don’t know if I can fully commit to all Mondays, but what if I start with breakfast?” As a result, the Dining Center removed ham and pepperoni from the omelette station on Mondays, added a smoothie bar, and is looking to source vegan sausage.
After four years of pushing for the Real Food Challenge, Drew is pleased by what ETHOS and others have accomplished so far. And she praised Mitchell for his excitement about the Challenge, when previous administrators were sometimes reluctant to lend their full support. As she prepares to hand off the initiative to the next generation, she paused for a reflective moment. “It feels like there’s actually progress being made.”