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Appealing to students’ stomachs – and consciences?

When Johns Hopkins University pledged to buy more local, sustainable food, part of officials’ rationale for doing so was that it could encourage other schools to follow suit. As a powerhouse university with major influence, officials said, Hopkins could blaze the trail.

If multiple college and universities in Maryland also signed the pledge (which is organized by a national group called Real Food Challenge and which asks colleges and universities to buy at least 20 percent of their food from local sources by 2020) that could make a real difference for small farmers, ranchers and other suppliers throughout the state, advocates said.

FoodThe economic benefit to those local producers is clear, as is the potential environmental payoff of more sustainable farming practices and reduced emissions from not transporting food across the country. But when Jon Berger, the RFC’s mid-Atlantic regional coordinator, told me the organization is working to revive
“the art of cooking from scratch” in the nation’s college cafeterias, I couldn’t help but wonder how that would go.

What’s the benefit to universities and colleges?

How do you persuade administrators who aren’t interested in the “buy local” movement to shift their focus, and, in some cases, to pay more for food? How do you convince worn-out dining services workers that cooking is better than, as Berger put it, “unzipping and unpacking”?

Berger had an answer: “It’s about what young people want,” he said. “If you look at what students say they want in a college, the amount they say they care about the food has gone up a lot in the past decade, so more schools are starting to pay attention to that as a crucial piece of attracting students.”

He might be on to something there. Environmental issues are certainly important to a substantial number of people, particularly young people. But how many students would choose a school because it emphasized sustainability in the dining halls? Or, conversely, how many would rule a school out based on its lack of support?

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