Cornell commits to Real Food Challenge goals

Cornell recently underscored its commitment to healthy dining practices by promising to purchase at least 20 percent of its food from local, fair, ecologically sound, and/or humane sources by 2020. President Brand signed the pledge during Commencement weekend, making Cornell one of the first 20 schools in the country to participate in the Real Food Challenge (RFC).

Molly Abbattista and Presdent Brand during Earth Day 2013
Environmental Club President Molly Abbattista ’13 discusses environmental issues with President Brand during Earth Day 2013.

Molly Abbattista ’13 and other members of Cornell’s Environmental Club spearheaded the adoption of the RFC pledge.

“The commitment represents a dedication to the future health of our students, our community, and our environment,” she said. “It also sets the foundation for a collaboration between students, faculty, staff, Bon Appétit workers and management, and local producers to expand Cornell’s participation in the sustainable food and farm economy.”

The agreement calls for the college to form a food systems working group, create a real food policy, and develop a long range action plan. Progress will be measured using the RFC’s “Real Food Calculator,” with annual reports published online.

Juniors Ellen Pajor and Julia Karvel spent a block calculating Cornell’s baseline real food score, earning independent study credit by analyzing two months’ worth of food purchases and developing a system for the college to use in assessing future progress. According to their calculations, which included the inopportune month of January, Cornell has already earned a Real Food Calculator score of 15.5 percent during Bon Appétit’s first year of operation at the college.

Amy Herren, General Manager for Bon Appétit at Cornell, said the RFC’s flexible definition of “real food” makes the 2020 goal very attainable, especially given that all colleges served by Bon Appétit are already working toward a goal of 20 percent locally-sourced food. At the same time, she noted that many of the staple items students currently expect—including sodas, breakfast cereals, and even bananas—will never qualify as “real” or locally-produced foods.

And other items, such as the ever-popular hamburger and fries, might meet the calculator’s standard for “real food” while not addressing the larger goal of healthy eating. Her aim is to change habits and expectations gradually through a variety of means.

One way is by building relationships with local producers for items students already enjoy. Bon Appétit has developed channels for most meats, all eggs, seasonal vegetables and fruits, honey, and other items. And Herren is actively working on other foods, such as bread and fish, that have proven more difficult to find locally.

She and her staff also educate students when they wonder why seasonal and exotic fruits, such as strawberries and mangoes, aren’t available all the time. And last year’s absence of Iowa-grown apples was a teachable moment about the devastating effect a late frost had on local orchards.

Herren also meets students halfway. She and her staff now create their own potato chips, tortilla chips and mozzarella sticks, using healthier and more sustainable ingredients. And she’s negotiating with a yogurt producer who may be able to provide a suitable replacement for the highly-processed and highly-popular soft serve ice cream.

She is excited about the renovations to the Thomas Commons and believes student tastes will shift even more dramatically when they are presented with a greater array of attractive options in a food court format. She envisions a student who might routinely head to the grill every day becoming attracted to items in the global or vegetarian stations without letting their preconceived preferences get in the way.

“Without knowing it, the students are developing palates for real food,” Herren said. “And we hope this will carry forward to their adult lives when they have to make food choices on their own.”