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For most campus diners, the industrial food system fueled by the money and purchasing power of food giants such as Aramark and Sysco remains invisible.

Dining halls go local 

click to enlarge UNC-Chapel Hill students learn about their dining-hall food. - PHOTO COURTESY OF FLO
  • Photo courtesy of FLO
  • UNC-Chapel Hill students learn about their dining-hall food.

They may have been raised to consume their daily bread without considering its origins, but lately students at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill have begun to wonder.

On a crisp fall day, scores of them bustled around a table giving away free fruit and vegetables. Later a crowd gathered to cheer on pairs of 20-year-olds competing in a strange relay race, filling two plastic buckets with sweet potatoes. The motivation: a cash prize. The winner took home a proud 35 cents—equal to the price a North Carolina farmworker is paid for a bucket of potatoes dug from the soil.

This new focus on food began when a few UNC students explored the paths their dining hall fare took from farm to plate. Two years later, the same group has organized students at campuses across the state to take a second look at that burger and fries.

It started in fall 2007 when a few students asked to meet with Carolina Dining Service (CDS), the campus food provider responsible for the dining halls and food stores that serve thousands of hungry students every day. For most campus diners, the industrial food system fueled by the money and purchasing power of food giants such as Aramark and Sysco remains invisible. But this group started asking questions.

The answers were startling. They found that some of the food served in Carolina's dining halls hailed from exotic study-abroad locales; other foods evaded tracking entirely. Products such as Smithfield Foods' pork were touted as "local" and "sustainable." Although Smithfield Foods has plants in North Carolina and owns most of the hogs in N.C., its international slaughtering operation has become infamous for human and animal rights abuses, as documented in the Indy and a 2006 article in Rolling Stone.

Motivated by these findings, the students created FLO Food (Fair, Local, Organic), which made its mark educating students about the meals that sustain their long days and longer nights. FLO activists take the stance that UNC's official commitment to sustainability is an inherent responsibility to sustain North Carolina's land, economy, growers and eaters.

FLO uses a cooperative approach to organizing, working with similarly oriented student organizations such as Alianza, a farmworkers' rights group that understands the human cost of the fare served in Carolina's dining halls. They also work with local nonprofits and growers.

The campus farmers' market and the sweet potato race were part of FLO's first Sustainable Food Week, introducing the university to the working concepts of a sustainable food system and what it could look like at Carolina. Together, FLO Food and Alianza hosted a week that celebrated good food and healthy communities, including a roundtable at which local food activists, not-for-profit organizations, farmers, students and professors joined with dining service representatives to imagine the university as a public institution that supports the regional food economy that underlies North Carolina's local culture.

Since that first event, there have been pig pickings and more farmers' markets filling campus with the tastes and smells of North Carolina. FLO's second Sustainable Food Week, in November 2008, featured a Food Forum with Baldemar Velasquez, the passionate founder of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC), who spoke of his personal experiences as a migrant farmworker on industrial farms.

CDS and FLO have continued to work and learn together. CDS currently serves cage-free eggs in both dining halls, and it has committed to purchasing local, grass-fed beef in the spring 2009 semester. Additionally, "green" theme meals featuring fair, local and organic produce have been a success; more are planned for 2009. CDS is working to build the local supply necessary for the thousands of meals served per week, with input and support from FLO.

Meanwhile, FLO's leaders have worked with professors to develop food-focused courses that engage students with their local food system. FLO members plan to join the Domestic Fair Trade Association, a national organization championing food sovereignty for domestic producers.

FLO has also become involved with the Real Food Challenge (RFC), a national student campaign for a just and sustainable food system. Born at the 2007 Kellogg Food and Society Conference, RFC has connected FLO to four other regions of the country where student leaders and youth activists are organizing networks.

In the Southeast, the RFC has been represented by FLO, Alianza, Durham-based Bountiful Backyards and Crop Mob, an group of young farmers in North Carolina who worked together to organize the Southeast Youth Food Activist Summit in February 2008. The event brought 70 youth activists from across the Southeast to Chapel Hill to share skills, lead workshops and enjoy seasonal meals.

FLO has committed to the RFC's main objective: to redirect 20 percent of campus food dollars to real food by 2020. It turns out that the food purchasing power of colleges and universities is formidable—amounting to about $4 billion a year nationwide. And that ain't small potatoes.

Disclosure: Alena Steen is a FLO student leader at UNC. David Hamilton was a founder of FLO, he graduated in 2008 and now works at Anathoth Community Garden, in Cedar Grove, N.C.

To find out what young people are doing for a more just and sustainable food system, go to www.realfoodchallenge.org or www.syfas.org.

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