We just have this opportunity for creating change at our institutional level and creating this momentum on regional and national level —Erin Olschewski, student
SALT LAKE CITY — University of Utah students could soon be eating more burgers made with grass-fed beef topped with cheese from local creameries. The school has committed to spending more of its food dollars on fresh, locally produced food in the coming years after students asked for more sustainable menus.
The way food is produced is an increasingly hot issue around the country, and institutions partially funded by tuition dollars spend a lot of money to feed students. Campus organizers say shifting some of that money to ecologically sound and fair-trade providers could help address a range of social issues.
University President David Pershing earlier this year signed the Real Food Challenge, making a commitment to spend 20 percent of the school's food budget on so-called real food over the next five years. The institution's food manager said the university plans to keep the pledge without raising costs.
The concept comes from a Massachusetts-based group that recruits students to convince their individual colleges to dedicate a larger portion of food budgets on more sustainable providers. So far, a total of 31 colleges and universities around the country have signed up.
Real Food's David Schwartz says colleges spend a collective $5 billion to feed their students, a total that gives them sway in the marketplace. The group wants to shift $1 billion of that to suppliers that pay fair wages and use ecologically sound growing methods, influencing a new generation of eaters along the way.
University of Utah student Erin Olschewski said she became interested in the concept last fall when organizers from the Real Food Challenge group visited campus.
"We just have this opportunity for creating change at our institutional level and creating this momentum on regional and national level," said Olschewski, a 22-year-old communications major who's planning a career at the intersection of food production and social justice issues.
She helped gather about 150 signatures at a university farmer's market and brought it to administrators who welcomed the idea. Pershing committed to it in February, becoming the first school in the Pac-12 to do so.
Reggie Conerly, a manager for the company that provides the campus food, said the university's annual budget is about $2.25 million. About 11 percent of what they buy now fits the group's definition of real food, like cage-free eggs, and he expects to start switching to more Utah-grown fruits and veggies.
That doesn't mean it'll all be easy. Cost is a potential challenge. Organic, local foods often have a higher price tag, and college students aren't typically known for deep pockets. But Conerly said that with the potential effects of California's drought on produce prices, buying local won't necessarily be more expensive. He plans to expand the school's "real food" offerings without raising prices.
"Students are very conscious of having a nutritious meal," he said. "The sustainable food approaches are going to be much more in-demand as we move through life trying to feed the population."