Schools network at ‘potluck’ Real Food Summit

At a Yale Sustainable Food Project-sponsored summit over the weekend, more than 175 students from 47 colleges and universities around the Northeast gathered to network and share ideas about how best to integrate elements of the sustainable agriculture — or “Real Food” movement ­— with existing campus food infrastructures.

Over the course of two days, participants in the Real Food Summit forged a consensus on their various beliefs and goals, which included the introduction of more local and sustainable food onto college campuses, support of college community outreach programs and expansion of sustainable agriculture academic programs. Conference attendees used these conclusions to assemble a manifesto of sorts that they said they hope will communicate to officials at the represented schools that there is a widespread interest in sustainable food among college students.

Students from forty-seven schools take part in the Yale Sustainable Food Project’s summit held over the weekend, which focused on increasing campus sustainability.
Blair Benham-Pyle
Students from forty-seven schools take part in the Yale Sustainable Food Project’s summit held over the weekend, which focused on increasing campus sustainability.

“We put this thing together with the hopes that we could really create a spark for all these schools throughout the Northeast to engage in something larger,” Brown University junior and summit organizer David Schwartz said. “I’ve been blown away by the energy here.”

Conference organizers and presenters said they scheduled the summit because students working on sustainable food issues at different schools tend to operate in relative isolation. This weekend’s summit, the first of its kind on the East Coast, aimed to bring those students together and give them a forum to share ideas, Schwartz said.

“[Students] are learning that they’re not alone in what they’re trying to do,” said Hampshire College Community Supported Agriculture Manager Nancy Hanson, who led a workshop on college farms and gardens. “It’s always great to get a bunch of people who are trying to do the same thing and share experiences.”

Students at the forum chatted informally about how to procure more acreage for campus farms, work with campus officials to increase the percentage of locally bought food in dining halls and generate student interest in sustainable food and agriculture. Although at times she found the conference “overwhelming,” Brooklyn College student Callista Falsia said she agreed with other summit attendees that she found sharing experiences with other like-minded students helpful.

Before the conference, the summit’s executive board drafted a document entitled “Real Food Declaration,” which outlined the mission of and justification for the Real Food Challenge. The challenge, a broader initiative that is set to launch next September, aims to make universities across the country more sustainable.

The declaration, ratified by summit attendees Sunday afternoon, will serve as a “useful tool” to keep student groups “on track” and give them a concrete statement of values to present to administrators and hitherto uninterested student bodies, said Marissa Grossman, a summit organizer and fellow with the Boston-based group The Food Project.

Students in attendance came from a heterogeneous mix of sustainability initiatives, ranging from established campus organizations to fledgling start-ups. At some schools, like Brooklyn College, groups have yet to begin their work, and other schools’ initiatives began as recently as one week ago — as was the case at Johnson and Wales University in Rhode Island.

Other programs, like the YSFP, have spent almost a decade working to make campus dining systems more sustainable.

“Think of this [summit] as a potluck gathering,” summit organizer and New York University junior Annie Myers said at the summit’s opening plenary session. “You don’t have to like everyone at the table or everything they’ve made, but the point is to try everything and to listen to everyone.”

Although organizers said the summit exceeded their expectations, they also said they wish more schools had sent representatives to New Haven. Notable absences included Dartmouth College and Tufts University, which Grossman said “slipped through the cracks” in the planning process. Schwartz also said he would like to see more state schools at future conferences.

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