Like many kids of her millennial generation, Natalie Tran grew up on fast food meals, fried chicken and hamburgers that her parents lugged home after long work days.
Her parents drifted to that quick, fatty American fare, even though they'd started out in the US gathering around the traditional and vegetable-rich family menus they'd brought with them from Vietnam.
"When I was a little kid. My mom made me these huge delicious bowls of Pho, a Vietnamese soup. It was awesome," says Tran, a junior at University of California – Santa Cruz. Somewhere along the way, as her parents worked longer hours, the savory pho turned to fries, snack foods and drive-up fried chicken.
Tran says she is still slightly embarrassed that her food background was so unenlightened. "I grew up eating very bad food," she says, with chagrin. Ironically, her mother worked in food establishments and she believes her parents embracing of the American way, combined with their grueling schedules, simply derailed their best intentions.
But since coming to campus Tran’s been making up for lost time, getting back in touch with her cultural food background and championing better food for all. As a leader in the national campus-based Real Food Challenge, Tran has worked with students and administrators to make the cafeteria menu healthier, more ethical and more culturally enriching.
She's part of a great backlash against lazy eating, fast food and junk food that's sweeping the nation's campuses.
David Schwartz, campaign director for the Real Food Challenge, explains that students are pushing back against food that's been corporatized, homogenized and also de-humanized.
In other words, chicken nuggets, watch out! They’re coming for you.
The organization, today a dispersed hive of some 120,000 students working at dozens of universities, began seven years ago. Back then, Schwartz recalls, concern about food sustainability was just emerging (in their lifetimes anyway) along with the nascent climate change movement. Agriculture and green-minded students were plowing forward with new campus farms and gardens. Student environmentalists were pursuing their agenda, as were students interested in labor justice.
All these movements were working independently, says Schwartz, who graduated in 2009 from Brown University where he helped start a student garden and a campaign to redirect food dollars to "real food."
Yet, the drives for sustainability, climate action, healthier food and farm justice were, in reality, deeply intertwined. Sustainable farming and local produce help reduce greenhouse gas emissions by shortening transport emissions and refrigeration; healthier foods could help save agricultural land and resources because they’re organic and less processed. And all these developments could combine to strengthen local economies and human health, which would especially benefit millennials, who’ve been slammed by education debt, a difficult job market and a even a dire health prognosis that has some studies predicting their lives will be shorter than those of their parents.
Once we worried about old people eating better. These days, its young people who need a healthier diet.
Schwartz and a small cadre of food activists saw all that. So did Anim Steel, a graduate from Harvard's Kennedy School of Government who'd been working The Food Project in Boston. Steel founded Real Food Generation, which launched the Real Food Challenge.
The Real Food Challenge decided to put its stake into the ground where many food activists thought they could get an audience and re-deploy massive sums of food dollars, on campus. They figured that the $5 billion campus food industry would be a good place to start "opening up food markets" and joining with local food entrepreneurs to bring healthier, organic, sustainable and fair food to American tables, Schwartz said.
It was a big bite, trying to secure not just healthier food, but also food that was climate friendly, local and ethically sourced and backed by fair labor practices. But Schwartz says it has to be that way.
"They're all connected. This is not just a movement to get better food for college students, this is a movement to use the power that universities and students hold to create a revolution in our food economy and to create new incentives for the farmers and growers and fisher folks who are doing things in a sustainable way and have been systematically shut out of most markets because they can't compete against the big guys," he says.
Pie in the sky? Not at UC-Santa Cruz and the other 21 universities, including all in the U-California system, that have signed the "Real Food Campus Commitment" in which the schools pledge that at least 20 percent of the campus food purchases will be "real food." If all campuses took the pledge, they’d be shifting $1 billion in purchases, Schwartz notes.
Another 134 colleges and universities, including Johns Hopkins, Brown, Indiana and UNC-Chapel Hill, are using the "Real Food Calculator," which helps them select better quality, more local foods.
The calculator is key to helping educate students and campus cafeteria administrators and chefs on how to determine what's "real" and what's not so real. It includes a list of suspect ingredients and additives that warrant culling, such as High Fructose Corn Syrup or the RSBT growth hormone that Monsanto devised to make dairy cows produce more milk, and helps identify suppliers with questionable practices that would be better replaced by local, organic or more humane producers.
Many of the universities, wanting to serve the healthiest foods and be a good neighbor to local producers, have welcomed the student help, say Schwartz and Tran.
"There are so many universities asking for real food on their campus and to have more agency and power to have real food," Tran says.
With the universities gathering behind them, the Real Food activists have won the attention of the large institutional cafeteria food services. Bon Appetit Management Co., Sodexo USA and Aramark are engaged in the process of finding better food, Tran says.
That’s not to say these mega companies are rewriting their offerings overnight. They’re hemmed in my many contracts with the giant food monopolies that provide nuggets and mystery meat; a juggernaut that the students are deconstructing piece by piece.
But the food service companies are listening, with the possible exception of one major food service player in the university food service space, Chartwells of the Compass Group, which hasn’t yet responded to the student movement, Tran said.
Sodexo and Bon Appetit, though, have welcomed and have publicly endorsed the Real Food Calculator.
“We've been huge fans and enthusiastic supporters of the Real Food Challenge since we first heard about the Month of Action in October 2008, says Bonnie Azab Powell, director of communications for Bon Appetit. "We love working with these passionate students on our campuses. Our country needs such engaged young people in order to effect real change in our food system.”
Tran, a biology, environmental studies and feminist studies major, who's been on the ground and running at full speed with food matters for more than two years now, says that youthful passion, combined with the nuts-and-bolts of the Food Calculator, is transforming campus food.
A group of students, working with cafeteria personnel, tackle the grunt work of combing through the food vendors' lists, which can contain more than 1,000 different products. Cafeteria personnel generally appreciate the student help with this daunting task.
First, the students develop a list of items that "definitely are not Real food" because they contain food dyes or that HFCS, or worse, they come from companies that use slave labor or fail to disclose all their ingredients.
But it's a process. Not everything that raises concern can be swept away. "This isn't about getting rid of French Fries," says Schwartz, but taking a look at "where those potatoes are coming from and the conditions of the people who grew them."
"We (UCSC) still purchase some meat from Tyson, which is like no," explains Tran.
Next, the students look for ways to substitute more nourishing, more ecologically beneficial foods for marginal or verboten items, trying to scoop up local foods, pastured meats, humanely raised eggs, organic produce and Fair Trade items.
They weigh multiple factors. Says Schwartz: "Kale is great. But if it is kale shipped from Yugoslavia and it's grown with pesticides, we'd say we prefer you find something else."
Those contracts with mega food corporations with their low costs (coupled with low quality) can stand in the way of shifting many food purchases. But while the process can be frustrating, there are opportunities for big victories when the case for switching is undeniably compelling.
In her freshman year, Tran discovered the problems that make many seafood purchases fail on sustainability measures. Large fisheries are being depleted because of intensive commercial-scale fishing that wrecks coral and claims excessive catches. Tuna, among other fish, is over-consumed, and Tran discovered that at least one major brand self-certifies, which raises a red flag with Real Foodies. Self-certification typically indicates that a company wants a persuasive label without doing the real work of opening itself to outside certification.
Tran helped UCSC hook up with Sea to Table, a Brooklyn group that had been working with Real Food to open campus markets to small, sustainable fishing outfits.
"We are currently working with UCSC with three species; Acadian Redfish from the Gulf of Maine, Wild Salmon (Sockeye and now Keta), and Wild Florida Shrimp," says Sophie Waskow, director at Sea to Table.
The program is helping sustain small-scale domestic fishers that operate sustainably through quotas and other practices that are more ecologically sensitive.
"Most of the seafood eaten in the US comes from outside the US but we also export a lot of seafood as well. We help to correct that market imbalance by connecting fishermen with chefs and campus dining programs," Wascow said. "…Campus dining operators have the unique opportunity to educate through food and we value our relationships with progressive schools like UCSC that recognize that they can shift their purchasing dollar to support wild domestic seafood.
"A lot of our work is about promoting underutilized and lesser-known species (what some like to call “trash fish”). By featuring species like these, schools are able to help give fishermen a better market for their catch, source lower cost but higher quality fish and expand the palates of their diners."
For Tran, helping bring Sea to Table onto campus is one of her proudest accomplishments.
There's a huge movement coming, she predicts. "We're asking for a more just and fair society and a lot of that starts with food."