It’s been proven time and again—when young people channel their passion for change, they are a force to reckon with. That’s why college students have played a pivotal role in many of the key paradigm shifts of the past century: They have helped to dismantle Jim Crow racism, speed the collapse of the Soviet Union and of South African apartheid, lead sweeping changes during the Arab Spring, raise our consciousness of rape culture, and question income disparities through the Occupy movement.

Today, students are taking a lead role in what is arguably one of the most important paradigm shifts facing contemporary society: The sustainability and justice of our food system.

That’s a complicated set of interconnected issues encompassing health, living wages, climate change and the environment, racial justice, and much more.

Real Food Challenge

But one organization has boiled the concept down to a simple message and a tangible goal, both of which are captured in its name, the Real Food Challenge (RFC): “Real Food” is the group’s catchphrase for food that is grown and shipped in a way that meets 13 core principles, which include concerns like health, farm wages, humane animal husbandry, and environmental awareness; the “Challenge” refers to the group’s goal to divert $1 billion of college and university spending toward a “truly just and sustainable food economy.”

RFC came to life in 2008 as an offshoot of the successful nonprofit, The Food Project, an educational farm with multiple sites in the Northeastern US. Its founders realized that students not only care deeply about sustainable food (and have the time and fervor to lobby for it), but they also influence one of the single largest purchasers of US food—institutions like universities and colleges.

Roughly half of all food consumption in the nation takes place outside of the home, and institutions like schools and hospitals make up a significant share of that consumption. These facts point to an obvious strategic opportunity: Change the shopping habits of a million individual consumers—or a half-dozen campus officials? Moreover, when schools offer “real food,” they expand their educational mission to the cafeteria, teaching a new generation the benefits of a sustainable food system.

Real Food Challenge National Summit 2013

It’s one thing to see the logic of this shift—but quite another to replace entrenched purchasing habits with what look like complicated and unrealistic new pathways. The large scale of institutional purchasing is quite a bit more complex than the relatively simple choices of an individual. To tackle this problem, RFC has issued a series of free, comprehensive guides, not only for student organizers, but also for food service professionals, campus administrators, and faculty. Perhaps most importantly, they’ve developed a Real Food Calculator, that allows all these groups to work together to track food purchases against pre-determined criteria over time.

In its first 7 years, RFC has made $70 million in progress toward its $1 billion goal, and is working this year on new campaigns at particularly large institutions including Ohio State University, and the University systems in Minnesota, Louisville, and South Carolina, and more.

Organic Valley is committed to building a just and sustainable food system and is proud to support Real Food Challenge in its efforts.