20/20 VISION: The goal of the student-led Real Food Challenge is to get colleges to shift $1 billion to sustainable food purchases by 2020.
Is it hard to find students on those campuses to handle the assessment?
Schwartz: It’s usually quite easy. Sometimes their work is funded through internship positions or they’re given credits, or it can even be a class project. Sometimes students just volunteer.
What is the percentage of real food being purchased by schools that have gone through this?
Schwartz: Probably about 15%, but I’d say they are the ones ahead of the curve. The overall average is probably much less than that. The goal is to shift a billion dollars by 2020.
How did you meet Real Food Challenge co-founder Anim Steel?
Schwartz: We got to know each other when we were young. We both worked together at the Food Project in Boston, which was the original sponsor of this organization. We worked with 100 teenagers to provide hunger relief and that was part of the inspiration for this. We thought, what if we scaled up, with not just 100 teenagers, but 17 million college students and what if we look at the $5 billion colleges spend on food? Young people can be incredibly capable of creating very powerful change in the world.
Can the Real Food Calculator work in other segments of foodservice?
Schwartz: Yes, we’re looking at hospitals, ski resorts, hotels—anyone interested in an assessment and anyone looking to grow their own sustainable food program. It’s fee-based and we’re piloting that in the coming year. We’re talking to a city that wants an assessment done for all its food trucks, and we have a hospital interested. It’s a competitive rate—you’re basically paying for consultants’ time to do the assessment.
How much are students driving this movement on college campuses?
Schwartz: It’s all driven by students. I think you’d find today if you polled a student body, the overwhelming majority support this type of change. Within that, usually there’s a much smaller vocal core driving the change. I think this is just the new normal—a new era. One of the college readings at UNC and Duke was The Omnivore’s Dilemma (by Michael Pollan), and for young people, it’s becoming just as normal to learn about the food system as it is about the environment. From my perspective, it’s being driven by consumer demand, but I’m finding on the institutional and commercial side, there are a lot of innovative leaders who have embraced this and are now educating their consumers. It works both ways.
What would you tell college dining directors who haven’t bought into this?
Schwartz: I think the time has come for this issue and it’s going to continue to be of interest for the next generation. There is a great opportunity to harness that energy and excitement of students to create a pathway for collaboration. Rather than students banging down doors as angry activists, students are approaching this in the spirit of collaboration.
I’m sure this is a question and reservation you get from many, but is there a higher cost with sustainable food?
Schwartz: This may be an investment up front, but it comes with increased customer satisfaction, an increase in the number of students buying into meal plans and if you’re a foodservice company, being able to hold onto your accounts. The revenue generation potential can be pretty incredible when you embrace this. For a long time, many played around the edges of this, but if it is a core business strategy, you can really see the benefits.