Here at Ohio State, this word is tossed around like an old hacky sack, bounced around from buildings to banners as “green this, green that.” From our Discovery Themes to our football stadium, this language is everywhere, affirming our university’s seeming commitment to an environmentally sound, community-oriented future. But do we, as students, ever question the legitimacy of this messaging? Has this constant talk talk talk actually prompted action? As all progressive student groups on campus eventually learn, the answer is a resounding NO.
For the past three years, we as members of OSU’s Real Food Challenge have campaigned tirelessly for one simple concept: real food. Food that nourishes both people and planet. Food that is local, community-based, fair and ecologically sound.
For three years, we have mobilized, organized, rallied and protested — always with one mission in mind: pressuring OSU to sign onto the Real Food Campus Commitment, which would shift our university’s tremendous institutional purchasing power toward a more just, sustainable food system. And for three years, we have tried to work with the administration when possible, from writing proposals and meeting endlessly with Dining Services to passing an Undergraduate Student Government resolution in support of the commitment.
However, it was only after coalition-building with Reclaim OSU and one particularly notable display of student power — our occupation of Bricker Hall last spring — that our university finally began to take us seriously. We were invited to sit on OSU’s newly established Panel on Food Sustainability, a committee tasked with increasing the university’s purchase of “local and sustainable” food to 40 percent by 2025. Progress, right? Wrong.
After months of working with this panel, the students of Real Food OSU have come to an unfortunate conclusion: Our university and its panel do not share our community’s vision of an equitable, just food system. We have come to realize that these commitments and committees are largely hollow, symbolic gestures. Despite the panel’s best intentions, OSU’s brand of sustainability is just that — a brand.
The way we see it, OSU’s vision neglects the most foundational flaws in our food system, including the corporate consolidation of land, knowledge and power and a legacy of racial oppression. Our university espouses ideals of “sustainability,” “community” and “progress,” yet we continue to align ourselves with the same corporate forces that degrade the environment, dismantle both rural and urban community life, and refuse to treat producers, farm workers and people of color fairly.
By contrast, the Real Food Campus Commitment’s finely tuned, meticulously researched standards would create a system that is not only socially and environmentally just, but also transparent. The commitment creates a structure in which students — not simply Dining Services or administrators — work alongside frontline communities, food-movement leaders and producers to hold the university accountable, preventing the abuses and “greenwashing” that too often comes with self-reporting.
Indicators of such greenwashing include exaggeration, vagueness and weak verification, according to University of Oregon’s Greenwashing Index. So how does OSU stack up? A goal of 40 percent local and sustainable food purchasing by 2025, all without clear definitions of those words and no established method of verification? Check, check and check. The combination of ambitious goals with loose metrics, not to mention the exceedingly long timeline, set the stage for a weak circle of accountability, at the very least.
One might ask: What progress, if any, has OSU made toward its year-old goal? Have they developed standards to transform food and agriculture through institutional purchasing? Not yet. Established a tracking and reporting system? Nope. When we met with the panel in December, it had not even created a basic decision-making process. Instead, it has turned down the one program that has been recognized — even by the panel’s own members — as the gold standard for sustainable food purchasing at universities nationwide.
And while critics of RFC may dismiss our solution as “too political,” while potential allies may be hesitant to upset vested interests or corporate donors, these dismissals and fears overlook the nuanced nature of our goal. We are simply asking for 20 percent real food — not all or nothing. Nevertheless, this 20 percent represents the critical first steps towards an alternative future. An alternative to the fossil fuel-intensive monocultures that degrade our soils, biodiversity and waterways. An alternative to businesses that perpetuate human-rights violations. An alternative that values people and planet over profit.
Especially in light of recent political events — including President Trump’s greenlighting of the Keystone and Dakota Access Pipelines (among myriad other assaults on the EPA, USDA, immigrants, people of color and even our basic civil rights) — such an alternative is not only necessary, but urgent.
For if our government is actively fighting against environmental protections, if our president openly touts racist ideology, who can we depend on to fight for an ecologically sound, livable future? Our higher-education institutions have the responsibility to step up, to fight against the tide of bigotry, environmental exploitation and corporate consolidation that could very well drown us all.
That is why we, as Real Food, will be here fighting alongside coalitions like Reclaim OSU, who see urgency in collectively building a just and sustainable future. And that future is watching, OSU. What side of history are you on?
Real Food OSU