Consumer food choice eroding away in the name of consumer food choice

In this country we continue to see consumer food choice being eroded away in the name of consumer food choice. Here is an example that recently came through my inbox that shows how this is happening.

I got an email asking for my support of the Real Food Challenge. The program is directed at college students and community leaders to encourage them to push for the local college or university to shift a portion of their food use to “Real Food.”

Here is more from the email directed to those associated with The Ohio State University:

The Real Food Challenge is a national initiative to encourage universities and other institutions to buy more food from local sources. Students at OSU are very involved locally in reaching out to the university. If you think the organization you represent might be interested in signing on to the attached letter to OSU President Michael Drake, and if you have any questions, please contact…”

Now, so far this sounds very reasonable. Who doesn’t want to support local farms? I could see how many people interested in the origins of their food would think that this effort is very worthwhile. With that in mind, the next logical step for a college student interested in helping local farms would be to look at the letter attached to the email that college students and community leaders are being asked to sign. Here is the letter:

I am writing in regards to the Real Food Challenge, a student-led campaign to invest in the real food economy. The goals of the Real Food Challenge consist of improving health and wellness in campus dining by supporting farms that will have positive impacts on the well-being of students, workers, animals, land, water, and the local economy. The Real Food Guide provides criteria for food that is local and community based, ecologically sound, fair, and humane (

The Real Food guide is a standard recognized nationally as one the most comprehensive tools for defining, measuring, and reporting sustainable food purchasing. The City of Columbus and Franklin County are considering the Real Food Guide and other criteria as part of the evaluation for the current conditions report that will help inform upcoming Food Action Plan recommendations. The Ohio State University’s commitment to Real Food Challenge criteria will align well with this countywide initiative.

Since 2008, students in the Real Food Challenge network have worked with their dining directors and other campus stakeholders to secure over $60 million worth of pledges to purchase more local, fair, sustainable, and humane food. Students continue to work toward the goal of shifting $1 billion of existing university food budgets toward real food. OSU has the opportunity to be a leading institution in committing to the Real Food Challenge. Other Big 10 universities including Northwestern, Michigan, and Indiana, as well as neighboring institutions like Oberlin and University of Cincinnati, are pursuing a working relationship with students to commit to purchasing 20% or more real food by 2020. Your support of real food and collaboration with students will have widespread positive effects on the health of people, the environment, and the economy.

We stand with the students for the Real Food Challenge and hope to see OSU make this positive change within the food system. We urge that you commit your campus to the Real Food Challenge.

Again, I could also see how this letter would sound very worthwhile and quite reasonable to college students eating at dining halls and interested in their food choices. After all, it is only a small percentage change and students deserve the right to have healthier choices to improve their “wellness.”

So, what is real food? The website link provided in the letter defines it as this:

Real Food is food which truly nourishes producers, consumers, communities and the earth. It is a food system — from seed to plate — that fundamentally respects human dignity and health, animal welfare, social justice and environmental sustainability.
Some people call it “local,” “green,” “slow,” or “fair.” We use “Real Food” as a holistic term to bring together many of these diverse ideas people have about a values-based food economy.

This is about more than supermarket labels. The Real Food Challenge has developed an innovative Real Food Calculator, which provides in-depth definitions of “real food” and a tracking system for institutional purchasing. With this tool, “real food” is broken down into four core categories: local/community-based, fair, ecologically sound, and humane. 

When putting yourself in the shoes of a college student with no farm background, this is sounding like a pretty good deal. But, even after reading the definition and sifting through the website, there is still no specific example of what Real Food is or what standards it must meet, though it sure does sound wonderful. All we have to go on is that it is: “local, fair, sustainable, and humane.”

So, even if they would take the time to really dig into the website for more information, a college student could very reasonably decide, “Well, I guess I’ll go ahead and sign this letter. Let me scroll down here all the way to the bottom and see whom I should contact (and also who sets the standards for what is local, fair, sustainable and humane, by the way). Oh, it is a nice lady from this group called Humane Society of the United States. They sound great. How can you go wrong with being Humane? Aren’t those the guys who help out all of those cats and puppies in my hometown? This seems like a no brainer. OK, where do I sign?”

It is easy to see how a well meaning college student or community leader could buy into this and sign the letter that, if adopted by the college or university, will undoubtedly add cost to the university’s food bill and, ultimately, the student’s. At the same time, signing the letter furthers the extremist agenda of the anti-animal agriculture Humane Society of the United States. Students may have more choices at the dining hall with Real Food, but they also have those same choices at the local grocery store without unnecessarily elevating the university’s expenses and forcing their fellow students to pay more for their food. Real or not, what choice does this provide the students who just want good, affordable food?

In the name of increasing food choice, these efforts really seek to take away the choice of affordable food raised on traditional farms that we have long enjoyed in this country. This forces food-making decisions based upon nothing more than the whims of the students and the clever tactics from organizations with extreme viewpoints. In the end, if being forced into doing something based on a decision made by an administrator resulting from letters generated by a misleading and vague food campaign from extremists, is it really a food choice after all? And, if so, who is it that is doing the choosing?


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  1. With HSUS, deception is the order of the day. All the time.

  2. I raise garden produce, meat chickens and eggs.

  3. I love the idea of encouraging that people support Ohio farmers. But, claiming that food is “not real” if it doesn’t meet very specific standards, including selective third party verification and a maximum income level of the farmer, limits food choice and isn’t sustainable. When you look at the details, this program has very little to do with local farmers. You can find the details in the “Real Food Guide”. You’re spot on, Matt!!

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