The real food challenge Expanding locally sourced food in campus dining halls
Converting to a wholesome, locally sourced diet is something many fantasize about, but don’t necessarily act on. Laura Marsiglio, data and metrics reporting assistant for the Office of Sustainability, ’21, is not one of those people.
After reading Michael Pollan’s “In Defense of Food” and recognizing the harmful impacts of intensive agriculture, she altered her diet to reduce her carbon footprint, benefitting the environment and her health.
Lehigh University is making these types of farm-sourced, nutritious foods available for all its students. Dining halls have entirely cage-free eggs, and items like bread, tofu, cheese, vegetables, fruits and turkey are all local.
It’s part of the Real Food Challenge, aimed at transitioning to 20 percent “real food” in dining halls by 2020, which President John Simon committed to in November 2017, along with just two Pennsylvania colleges – and 83 others nationally.
“As an institution you can… start a ripple and then it’s going to expand, and hopefully more people start eating locally, making changes in their diet, and then society will be more sustainable in the future,” Marsiglio, a member of the student-led Challenge team, said.
According to the Challenge’s website, this movement is much needed as environmental negligence and business consolidation take over standard food systems.
Lehigh’s Office of Sustainability, Dining Services, and the Budget Office are the main departments working on this initiative. Head chefs construct the menu and select vendors, Marsiglio said.
Their focus is now on finding better quality meat, since it’s one of the more expensive budget items.
The university’s commitment to nutritional sources, however, isn’t new.
“We have nutritional food and we’ve had it here for a while,” said Carrie Gerencher, registered dietician at Lehigh. “A lot of our food is homemade, and it gets made as whole food… this shift is nothing new, it’s just ordering from local purveyors.”
In the Challenge process, members take inventory in October, a higher traffic month, and February, a lower traffic month, to represent annual trends in food purchasing, Marsiglio said.
The movement toward higher quality food coincides with the increasing popularity of organic foods.
According to a Pew Research Center study, “retail sales of organic foods more than doubled from 1994 to 2014, with a steady uptick of about 10 percent annual growth in retail sales over the past several years.”
Marsiglio is one of many young adults consuming more organic produce on a sustainable diet.
“My grocery store carries a lot of organic and fair trade, really good brands… it just came down to making a choice and buying the organic option if it was a couple cents more as opposed to the highly processed version,” she said.
The Challenge also comes at a time when 61 percent of adults under 30 say organic food is better for your health, as opposed to only 45 percent of senior citizens, according to the poll.
This is one of several reasons why the university has gotten involved.
“We have to follow the trends because you’re our captive audience,” Gerencher said, referring to students. Young people want to know more about where their food comes from, she added, and feel it’s healthier when sourced closer to the university.
“It’s a perception thing,” Gerencher said.
Victoria Lombardi is a student Journalism major at Lehigh University and a news reporter for The Brown and White.