UMass to sign the Real Food Challenge!

The Chancellor of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, MA has agreed to sign the Real Food Challenge.  This will make UMass the largest university in America (serving about 40,000 meals per day) to sign the agreement committing the institution to assuring that 20% of the universities’ food purchases come from socially responsible farms and food businesses–what they call ‘real food.’

The Challenge was introduced to UMass in January 2012 with a presentation by the Real Food Challenge regional team in our Sustainable Living class.

Following this presentation a small group of students began to meet with university faculty and the Chancellor’s Sustainability Committee to begin to explore the possibility of making this commitment.

The Executive Director of Auxiliary Services and the person responsible for managing food services on campus, Ken Toong (left in the photo), has made a major commitment to high quality, sustainable food, and was an immediate and vocal supporter of the effort.

Students mounted a petition drive, collecting names of other students, faculty and staff who were in favor of the university making a commitment to the Challenge and on May 1, met with University Chancellor Subbaswamy.  According to Sustainable Food and Farming major Molly Bajgot, “the Chancellor was enthusiastic about the proposal and we expect to host a public signing in the fall.”  The actual text of the commitment is linked here

The UMass Student Food Advocacy team of (left to right in the picture below) Rachel Dutton, Ezra Small, Lila Grallert, Molly Bajgot, and Hannah Weinrock, should be congratulated for their hard work and perseverance.

Students in the project earn credit from the Stockbridge School of Agriculture to review invoices from hundreds of food vendors, investigating their commitment to Real Food.

According to Real Food Challenge leaders, “despite a growing interest in local, organic and sustainable food on campuses, little consensus exists on what makes food truly “good”…”  Further, they write…. “the youngest generation of Americans today will be the first in our nation’s history with a shorter lifespan than their parents, thanks in part to the food they eat.  Our food system is driving an epidemic of diabetes and diet-related disease, while also fueling climate change and the loss of our nation’s family farmers. The challenge is there’s just not enough ‘real food’ out there – it’s less than two percent of our national food economy. Fortunately our nation’s colleges and universities are uniquely positioned to address these 21st century challenges and help build a truly healthy food economy. With a combined annual purchasing power of almost $5 billion, U.S. colleges and universities have the capacity to significantly impact our nation’s food system through their decisions. Further, by educating students—our future CEOs,politicians, parents, and (yes!) farmers — we can cultivate the leadership and the ingenuity needed to successfully transition to a healthier, more sustainable food system.”

This student-led campaign is an example of how the University of Massachusetts at Amherst is leading the nation in creating opportunities for small, local farmers and encouraging change in the industrial food system.  Other projects and activities at UMass along these lines are:

  1. The UMass Student Farming Enterprise is a yearround class that gives students the opportunity to manage a small organic university-owned farm and sell their produce through a CSA, farmers market, and to university and private food service and retail markets.  See the video!
  2. The UMass Permaculture Initiative is a unique class and program that has converted underused grass lawns on the campus into edible, low-maintenance, and easily replicable food gardens. See on of the program videos!
  3. Permaculture in the Pioneer Valley is a class, sponsored by the UMass Dining Services UMass Permaculture Initiative that designs and installs permaculture gardens off-campus in local elementary schools.
  4. A celebration of local food cooperatives was sponsored by Sustainable Food and Farming students introducing the UMass campus and students to work opportunities in local foods!
  5. There has been an “explosion” of interest in the Sustainable Food and Farming major, growing from only 5 students in 2003 to over 85 students today.

One of the most important aspects of student education is the emphasis on getting practical experience either with local farms and markets, or non-profit public policy and advocacy groups, and farm-based education collaboratives.  Practical education built on a solid foundation of biological and ecological sciences prepare students to explore creative options and good work Its surely a good time to be an “Aggie.”


Anyone interested in discussing this new major should contact Dr. John M. Gerber, Program Coordinator and Professor.  Many students have found the flexibility of the Sustainable Food and Farming major attractive.  Contact us or check out the major here and some videos presenting courses and topics of interest.

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