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Organic faces Cultural and Institutional Roadblocks at College Cafeterias

(Photo courtesy of the Real Meals Campaign)

Given the importance of both sustainability and plant-based diets for young adults, it would seem reasonable to think that organic has been making massive headway in getting into college cafeterias.

If only this were the case.

By and large, universities have outsourced their food service functions to third-party providers, and not surprisingly, these organizations make food purchasing decisions based on what will drive the most profitable outcome. And when students are required to sign up for the school’s meal plan, it often leaves them with few choices outside of the highly-processed, pesticide-laden, genetically-modified options.

Wanting something different, a growing number of students and university administrators are taking matters into their own hands.

At Kent State University in Ohio, which has an enrollment of 35,000 on eight campuses, the school recently terminated its contract with Aramark.

According to a story from Inside Higher Ed, Kent State officials said bringing food services in-house will allow the university to invest in more sustainable food production and service, meet student food preferences, improve relationships with local workers and allow dining services to be more financially efficient; thus, dispelling the notion that it is more economical to outsource this function.

Over the years, Brown University has taken concerted steps away from industrial agriculture.

It prioritizes food purchasing from small local and regional farmers that are within 150 miles of the school and have revenues less than $5 million. Additionally, Brown implemented a Farm to Fork program, secured sustainable seafood partnerships and launched a Community Harvest program to increase its support of food producers in the Rhode Island area.

Efforts to procure food in a more responsible way have netted real results. Brown’s red meat spend meets the five-step criteria of Certified Animal Welfare by A Greener World, 49% of its chicken spend is humane, 100% of its eggs are cage-free and 89% of pork is gestation-crate-free.


While efforts are taking place across the U.S. to move in this direction, there are very deep structural and cultural roadblocks preventing this from happening.

One national organization that is pushing for systemic change is Real Food Generation. Its report, Be-Trayed: How Kickbacks in the Cafeteria Industry Harm Our Communities — And What To Do About It, shines a light on how three multinational corporations — Aramark, Sodexo and Compass Group — control 81% of higher education dining contracts and effectively act as gatekeepers to the $52 billion management industry.

The report outlines the “pay-to-play” system that advantages the food suppliers with the greatest ability to pay, such as Tyson, Cargill and JBS. In the process, small and medium-sized farms and food businesses find it incredibly difficult to participate in the important college market.

Testifying at a U.S. Senate committee hearing on government affairs, New York Assistant Attorney General John F. Carroll, who was in charge of investigating allegations of fraud and waste harming local and state governments in New York, called these rebates (kickbacks) “intentionally opaque.” In an investigation his office pursued under the False Claims Act, Sodexo agreed to a $20M settlement.

That being said, Real Food Generation has made progress. It has redirected approximately $80M in annual spending away from industrial sources and toward Real Food — sources that are local and community-based, fair, ecologically sound and/or humane.

Despite this gain, Aramark, Sodexo and Compass Group had 2019 revenues of nearly $33 billion, so there is a long way to go and these entrenched players are not exactly incentivized to make deep changes to their very profitable model. And when Organic Insider attempted to speak with these three companies about this situation, our emails went unanswered.


For organic to become a widely available option at cafeterias throughout the country, the industry will need to take a much more hands-on, active approach. And it should do so quickly.

In the Real Meals Campaign — a program that Real Food Generation, Fair World Project, Friends of the Earth and other groups are spearheading — the mission is to get Aramark, Sodexo and Compass Group to reorient their business away from a system of exclusive relationships with big food companies and toward real meals that support producers, communities, consumers and the planet.

In addition to getting these three international corporations to commit to reducing carbon emissions and CAFO animal products, investing in racial justice and equity, and increasing transparency and accountability, the other goal is to have them achieve 25% Real Food for every campus. While organic may fall under the ‘ecologically sound’ category in Real Food, organic is not specifically mentioned as a target purchase.

In terms of activism among the younger generation, their area of interest is clear.

“Most students are looking at it from a strong justice angle — the impact on marginalized communities, cafeteria employees, workers in the field and people of color,” said Anim Steel, executive director of the Real Food Generation. “I know of no young people fighting for organic.”


(The graphic above was taken from the Real Food Challenge Impact Report. No specific mention of organic.)

With gratitude,

Max Goldberg, Founder

New Organic Products

New Organic Products

Magic All-One Chocolate from Dr. Bronner's

This summer, Dr. Bronner's will introduce a new line of organic, fair trade and vegan chocolate. The Magic All-One Chocolate Bars be available in six flavors --  salted dark, roasted whole hazelnuts, crunchy hazelnut butter, salted whole almonds, salted almond butter and smooth coconut praline -- and all are based in 70% dark chocolate from regenerative organic cocoa beans and sweetened with coconut sugar.  

Citrus Immunity from Suja Organic

New from Suja Organic is Citrus Immunity. This tropical cold-pressed organic juice is made with functional ingredients such as orange, pineapple, mango, coconut water, lemon, ginger and acerola cherry, and it provides Vitamins C & D, zinc and live probiotics    

Vegan Ice Cream from Forager Project

Fresh off its recent launch of plant-based cheese, Forager Project continues to innovate with its new line of vegan organic ice cream. They come in five flavors -- vanilla bean, bittersweet chocolate, cookies & cream, salted caramel and mint chip -- and will be available this spring at retailers nationwide.

Plant-Based Sipping Broths from Grace's Goodness Organics

Recently rebranded as Grace's Goodness Organics, these plant-based sipping broths come in three flavors -- Vitality (vegetables & rosemary thyme), Immune (vegetables & cumin turmeric) and Better Belly (vegetables & lemon ginger). Just add water.    
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This Week's Quick Hits

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* Patagonia’s Yvon Chouinard tells the story of his company’s tsampa soup.

* Important op-ed from the Center for Food Safety’s Bill Freese: We now know that the Trump administration interfered with the science on the destructive herbicide dicamba. It’s time for Biden’s EPA to act.

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* Beyond Pesticides has put together a stellar line-up for its 2021 National Pesticide Forum. The virtual conference begins on May 25th and runs through June.

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* Danish meal kit firm Simple Feast just entered the U.S. market and is bringing regenerative agriculture to the masses.

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* The public oral argument challenging the FDA’s approval of Impossible Foods’ genetically-engineered soy leghemoglobin begins today.

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