The Food System

More and more Americans believe that our food system is broken:  it’s unhealthy, environmentally unsustainable, inhumane, and unfair.  And institutional food — food prepared outside of the home — is a big part of our system:

Consumers will spend $600 billion in 2011 at  restaurants, institutional cafeterias (e.g. colleges, schools, hospitals, businesses), airports, and at restaurants in hotels and casinos. And 11 million workers are employed in the food service industry preparing, cooking, and serving the food at restaurants, cafeterias, and other businesses.

If Americans could change the food practices of these institutions, we could have a profound impact on the food system and food workers.  One interesting place where that is starting to happen is at universities and colleges.  More and more universities are starting to buy food from local farms, substituting highly processed products with fresh and healthy whole foods cooked from scratch, and incorporating environmental and social criteria into the food procurement process.

And universities have a real presence in the food system.  In 2010, U.S. universities and colleges generated over $19 billion in food service revenues, more than the U.S. revenues of fast food corporate giants like Burger King, Subway, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and others.

Given their  large food “footprint,” it’s great that universities are making progress towards establishing a sustainable food model that could influence other large players in the food system.  However, most schools are falling short of one of the core tenets of real food sustainability — the treatment of workers.  The vast majority of campus workers who serve, prepare and cook institutional food are working for poverty-level wages with scant benefits.

In order to achieve their sustainability goals, universities must address this contradiction in their sustainability programs.  We’ve also seen that in so doing, universities are actually better positioned to achieve their other food sustainability goals as well as play a positive role in addressing the broader food and diet-related illnesses crisis in the country.

In our work with food workers, on campus and beyond, we’ve learned that food workers are important allies in transforming our food system in part because they have so much at stake: food workers are among those most affected by the food crisis.  Food workers are frequently poorly paid  and suffer from food insecurity and diet-related illnesses at alarmingly high rates.  Food workers also bring tremendous assets to the fight for real food, including untapped skills in the kitchen as well as a unique vantage point to monitor the safety and quality of food.

Our Real Food and Real Jobs campaign argues that food workers need to be part of the conversation about reforming our food system, and universities present an opportunity to develop a real sustainable food model that could be emulated by other institutions.  Read more about the problems food workers face on campus, how this contributes to food insecurity for food workers, and some solutionsexamples, and principles that could create real reform of our food system that includes workers.

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