Fair Food Universities

This post first appeared on The University of Sydney's Sydney Environment Institute Blog

Food is so ubiquitous that it is easy to become complacent about its presence in our lives. Yet we know that what we eat and the way we grow, process, distribute, sell and share food has far-reaching social, economic and environmental impacts.

Universities are small cities. I study at the University of Melbourne where, each year, the community spends approximately $24 million on food and beverage at retail outlets and cafes – around $10 per person per day. This figure doesn’t even account for catering at events by clubs, societies, the Student Union and the Graduate Student Association. What if some or all of this amount were instead invested in local economies by purchasing healthy, sustainable and locally produced food? Imagine a university at which interdisciplinary teams work together to research food system challenges while students undertake subjects in nutrition, crop science, food politics, agroecology and horticulture. This is a place where local producers deliver seasonal produce at food hubs to be distributed to on-campus businesses and colleges, where community kitchens fill with students sharing recipes, teaching each other good food skills and cooking with campus-grown ingredients. Green spaces grow edibles and organic waste becomes part of a circular economy. This is a Fair Food University.

We’re not quite there. At the campus where I spend most of my time it is easier to get a chocolate bar than a piece of fruit. In the main library you need to walk past a soft-drink vending machine to drink from a water fountain. Bins overflow with single-use packaging. The meal a student event is most likely to serve is a cheap, supermarket-sourced sausage on white bread. After surveying 350 students we found that the majority have less than $40 a week to spend on food. With the ever-growing pressures of rental affordability and cost-of-living student food insecurity is something that must be seriously considered.

The Fair Food Challenge is a student-led campaigning organisation that seeks to create fair, healthy and accessible food environments on Australian University Campuses. We work with university communities to understand what they want for their food environments and we work with university executives to create joined-up policy that will fundamentally transform our schools. The Challenge is inspired by the AmericanReal Food Challenge, an organisation that in the past decade has run $77 million of institutional food through its Real Food Calculator, shifting institutional spending power to an alternate food economy.

Last year we found ourselves with an overwhelming amount of research, as well as examples of great food projects from around the world. We were struggling to communicate what we knew and decided to share our resources with the community. We invited 15 students to join us, and over the course of one weekend co-designed a roadmap for Australia’s first comprehensive, systems-focused institutional food policy. During two days the group wrote 15,000 words which, once edited became our inaugural report What Could a Fair Food University Look Like? This report is a roadmap for university food policy. It outlines our vision and showcases best-practice examples. It contains a fair food questionnaire to assess a university’s current food environment, a job description for a Campus Food System Co-ordinator and a rationale for a Campus Food Systems Working Group. One of the most valuable outcomes from this working weekend was the formulation of the Fair Food Challenge’s seven pillars: Access and Equity, Health, Education, Innovation and Opportunity, Procurement and Retail, and Resourcing and Accountability. We believe that if institutions tackle these areas they can make considerable progress in transforming their food environments.

At the recent SEI event Cultivating our Campus: Exploring how universities can build more healthy and sustainable food systems I sat alongside Dr Sinead Boylan speaking to Sydney University’s intention to incorporate principles of healthy and sustainable nutrition on campus through their Healthy Sydney Universityplan. At the University of Melbourne we have just launched our Sustainability Plan 2017-2020 outlining how we will take radical steps to reduce the institution’s and the community’s environmental footprint. Each plan creates a mandate for work and research at its respective institution albeit in different areas. The Fair Food Challenge seeks to be a conduit for knowledge between institutions and creating a connected community of practice.

Current policy failures and a climate of political inertia mean that our universities must demonstrate leadership in our society. Universities can undertake research, model fair food projects and harness the power of our communities to demonstrate changes that can benefit everyone.

Find out more about the Fair Food Challenge by visiting our website, signing up for updates and following us on social media @fairfoodau.