Waiters bearing silver platters weave around plates of plant-based decadence. On a table, golden beets, velvet-colored poached pears and sunset heirloom tomatoes complement the classic carrot and celery appetizers.
It’s the Humane Society’s Gala for Growth, and three miles from the former meatpacking capital of the world, all animal-based protein has been banned. All of the vegan and vegetarian delights are in honor of the work of a single student group – NU Real Food (NURF).
Started in spring of 2014, NURF spent the last academic year lobbying Sodexo and NU to use 20 percent “local, sustainable, humane or fair trade food” for all food provided on campus. In June, President Morton Schapiro signed the pledge, making NU the first Big Ten college to embrace a movement that has now swept 35 campuses nationwide.
But five months later, as the group continues to gain support and students try to implement the plan, they’re learning that our addiction to fake food may be hard to beat. After months of meetings with Sodexo officials and university administrators, two NURF members, Weinberg junior Kimberly Clinch and senior Renee Schaaf, began analyzing data on Northwestern’s food sourcing last spring and were disappointed with what they found.
“I was shocked by how little real food there is, the way we envision it, [where there’s] farmers tending their field or cows out in the grass,” Clinch said. “There are ... vegetables that come from factories and not farms, where they have massive machines that just spray things down.”
By the summer, the team confirmed that five percent of Sodexo’s food was "real." To reach 20, they established the Food Systems Working Group, a taskforce that includes administrators but is run by students.
“It’s kind of switching up the power structure, which is really exciting,” said Medill senior Miranda Cawley, co-director of NU Real Food.
Progress, however, is slow. Finding and confirming that a product meets "real" standards involves extensive fact-checking and negotiation with farmers and distributors.
“It’s not like we have have a black and white [plan]: step one, purchase apples farm in Michigan. Step two, buy fair trade coffee,” said Rachel Tilghman, director of communications and development at Sodexo. “What we’re trying to do right now is negotiate a lot of those practices all at the same time.”
Tilghman said distributors will often be able to provide local or sustainable food, but only as a percentage of the total order. “We’re talking with farmers and distributors to see what we can do to meet our needs,” she said. “We don’t want to change our purchasing and then all of a sudden it not count towards NURF.”
“There’s not one product you can walk into the dining hall and can count on it being real food,” Clinch said.
If progress has been slow for NURF, the support it was initially met with has been surprising. It took NURF fifteen months before President Shapiro signed the pledge. Meanwhile, other environmental campaigns like Fossil Free Northwestern have worked on campus for years without gaining university support. Cawley thinks NURF may have been more successful because unlike Fossil Free NU, they didn’t need the Board of Directors.
“[The Board of Directors] are not necessarily as accountable to the student body as administrators are,” Cawley said. “We were dealing with Office of Sustainability and the Office of Student Life.”
But others at NURF and the Humane society suggested that the university’s self-interest could have played a role.
“Food is a very important aspect to all our lives,” Ken Botts, Food Policy Director at the Humane Society said. “We eat it three times a day and if it’s not good, that student may choose to go to a different university.”
Northwestern students have indeed embraced Real Foods. At a screening of Food for Thought, Food for Life Tuesday night, Dance Marathon representative Justin Marquez announced that DM would donate a portion of its proceeds to Real Foods. The fundraiser supports Blessings in a Backpack, which combats immediate food insecurity by supplying weekend meals to low-income students, Marquez said, but environmental activism can solve the long-term problem.
“Blessing in a Backpack ... is not a solution [alone], but just a piece in addition to creating urban farms, to creating vertical gardens, to creating more knowledge,” Marquez said.
Marquez touched on a broader social justice theme that has galvanized the Evanston community around climate change and food justice.
Numerous community groups attended the Gala. Members of Evanston Food Exchange, which tries to stem poverty and hunger by promoting sustainable farming practices, spoke briefly. Baffour Osei-Takyi, who works for Chicago-based group Zero Percent delivers grocery stores’ surplus food to charities and shelters. Djorgy Leroy, social services director at Curt’s Cafe, which gives jobs and training to at-risk and previously incarcerated youth, was particularly impressed by NURF.
“We work with economically disadvantaged young adults and part of being disadvantaged, is sometimes you don’t have good eats,” Leroy said, “so having real sources and having some that they have access is on my radar.”
The broad reach is exactly what Cawley intended. “I think of us as a really good bridge group between environmental activism and social activism,” Cawley said.