University Joins Real Food Challenge at Earth Day Celebration

As the first D.C. institution to participate, GW commits to 20 percent “real food” by 2020

Earth Day 2014
Executive Director of Sustainability Kathleen Merrigan addresses the crowd of students, faculty and staff at the 2014 Earth celebration held on Monday. The university announced a commitment to the Real Food Challenge at the event.
April 23, 2014

By Brittney Dunkins

The George Washington University took another step to building a greener campus and world at the Earth Day celebration held on Kogan Plaza on Monday when University President Steven Knapp announced that GW would join the Real Food Challenge, a national student-led movement to provide local, sustainable and fair trade, or “real,” food to college students.

Amidst cheers from students, faculty and staff, Dr. Knapp said that though GW Campus Dining’s food supply boasts 9.6 percent real food, the university will commit to procuring 20 percent real food by 2020.

"I commend the students who have worked so hard to bring the Real Food Challenge to campus,” Dr. Knapp said. “By signing this commitment, the university is giving our students a great opportunity to conduct research on sustainable food systems and to further dialogue about where food comes from and how it was produced.”

George Washington is the first D.C.-based higher education institution to make the Real Food Campus Commitment, which is the result of a grassroots effort led by the GW Real Food Student Working Group and the Food Justice Alliance, in collaboration with campus dining vendor Sodexo, the Sustainability Institute, Office of Sustainability and Campus Support Services.

GW is one of 22 universities, including Johns Hopkins University, University of Massachusetts Amherst, Oberlin College, Cornell University and Wesleyan University who have made the Real Food Campus Commitment.

More than 120 schools have used the Real Food Calculator food purchasing audit system and nearly 350 have engaged with the Real Food Challenge network by hosting events, developing programming and creating internships to address the issue on campus.

Sodexo Corporation has also signed a food transparency agreement with the Real Food Challenge. Currently, 10 schools, including GW, that partner with Sodexo have joined.

Newly appointed Executive Director of Sustainability Kathleen Merrigan, the former Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, praised the dedication of the students and the university in fighting for responsible food practices.

“While I do not agree with all aspects of the real food calculator, that’s not the point. By signing this pledge, our university is committing to a robust dialogue on food – where it comes from, how it was produced, and who produces it,” Dr. Merrigan said.

“Whether its in cyberspace as part of Planet Forward, in the classroom with Chef José Andrés, or in the lab creating green agrichemicals, our students are engaged; they are leading, and they are raising their voices about food.”

Under the commitment, any food that is genetically modified, contains additives such as trans-fats, is the product of a company that has fair labor violations or has a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation status will not be considered real food.

GW student organizer Cavan Kharrazian described how the small group of students interested in researching Campus Dining became a 20-person collective research team with hundreds of student supporters and more than a dozen coalition partners.

 “Over the next six years it is going to take a lot of hard work, support from students and dedication from the administration to meet our 2020 goal and be a leader as an institution,” Mr. Kharrazian said.

“Thank you President Knapp for allowing the university to sign onto this initiative and become an institutional leader in building a just, sustainable food system,” he added.

Real Food Challenge Mid-Atlantic Regional Coordinator Jon Berger was also on hand to congratulate the university and the students on their efforts to create a more sustainable future.

“I truly believe if our food system has a future, one that is beneficial and sustainable and able to support communities all over the world, then young people and students need to be at the forefront of that effort,” Mr. Berger said.

Dr. Knapp highlighted other campus-wide sustainability efforts including the two newest LEED Gold-certified projects, the Ross Hall renovation and the Law Clinic, which bring the total number of on-campus LEED-certified projects to seven.

Other sustainability initiatives include the Ecosystems and Enhancement Strategy, waste reduction and single-stream recycling with a long-term goal of “zero-waste,” the student-built solar table and the Climate Action Plan, which aims to achieve  carbon neutrality.

Director of the Office of Sustainability Meghan Chapple said that the university will continue to strive to implement sustainable practices and work hand in hand with students and food vendors to meet the Real Food Challenge.

“With a planet that needs to feed 9 billion people by 2050 and produce more food in the next 40 years than the amount produced in the last 8,000 years combined, we need to find innovative and cost-effective solutions here at GW and around the world, " Ms. Chapple said.