Photo by Emma Sarappo

You Are What You Eat

Real food comes to campus.

By Virginia Nowakowski

High fructose corn syrup: it’s one of the most common processed ingredients in our food system, a likely culprit responsible for hikes in national obesity and potentially a risk to our ecosystem. You’ve probably seen it in candy, jelly, ketchup, soda ... even bagels.

That’s right, like the Powerade you drink and the barbecue sauce you throw on your chicken, the bagels you eat in Northwestern’s dining halls currently contain high fructose corn syrup.

Real Food at Northwestern is planning to change that.

According to Real Food at Northwestern’s website, real food is “community-based, fair, ecologically sound and humane.”

As a student group dedicated to building a better food system for producers, consumers and the world, Real Food has been campaigning for a year to get Northwestern to include more natural, “real food” options on campus.

Thanks to their advocacy, President Morton Schapiro signed a commitment in June 2015 to have 20 percent of all food in Northwestern dining halls meet “real food” standards by 2020.

But what exactly is real food?

According to Real Food at Northwestern’s website, real food is “community-based, fair, ecologically sound and humane.”

“The good thing about real food is that it can be anything, it just has to be sourced sustainably or meet one of the four criteria,” says Medill senior Miranda Cawley,* co-director of Northwestern’s Real Food group. “It doesn’t have to meet all of the four criteria.”

Examples of real food include fair-trade coffee, or even potato chips made from potatoes grown within a 250-mile radius. Including more real food in the dining hall certainly does not require students to eat only vegetarian or healthy choices.

“We’re committed to making sure that no matter what your dietary preference is or what your taste preferences are, you can still participate in this new food system that we are building,” Cawley says.

Illustrations by Sasha Costello

Rachel Tilghman, director of communications and engagement for Sodexo at Northwestern, says that many students may not notice the change in food.

“For the most part I think it’s going to be pretty subtle,” Tilghman says. “There’s no overnight black-and-white changes where we are flipping an entire dining hall to be an organic farmer’s market, as awesome as that would be. We have to make sure that we’re being cost-conscious and fair, and not completely changing the diets of people who want to have corn dogs and mac-and-cheese.”

Tilghman is a member of the Food Systems Working Group, a collaborative created to plan and accomplish the goal set by Northwestern’s institutional commitment. Other key members of the group include representatives from Northwestern’s administration, the Office of Sustainability, Associated Student Government, Sodexo, NU Dining and, of course, Real Food at NU.

Before they make a strategy, members of the group must first determine how much “real food” Northwestern currently offers. Renee Schaaf and Kimberly Clinch, both student analysts for Real Food at Northwestern, have been busy examining Sodexo’s product orders to determine whether each item meets standards created from “real food” criteria.

When they have the final estimate, the members of the Food Systems Working Group will work with food providers like Midwest Foods, Gordon Food Service and local farmers to receive options that meet “real food” qualifications as certified by organizations like the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Fair Trade USA.

While it may seem that Real Food at Northwestern has a mountain of work ahead of them, Cawley is already looking beyond the 20-percent goal. She says it’s a perfectly reasonable starting place from which the movement can continue to grow.

“It should be no problem at all to continue to increase it,” Cawley says. “If our peer institutions can do it, we can do it.”

* Miranda Cawley is an NBN contributor.