The Carbon Diet

The Environmental Sustainability Conference held at Vanguard University on Feb. 4 has spurred discussion about the various ways to help the planet through diets that produce low carbon emissions. Although several UC Irvine students left this conference with new ideas about how to improve the environment, other students and organizations on campus have been working on making the earth a better place for quite some time. One of the many groups striving towards this goal is the UCI Real Food Challenge – a club of students committed to gathering ideas about sustainable food and implementing practices that help the environment.

The students of UCI Real Food Challenge address several food issues on campus and throughout the world. The club uses the term “real” food as a holistic way to bring about different ideas about just and sustainable food. According to the organization, “real” food comes from animals that are raised humanely and from farmers who are given fair treatment and wages.

“Real” food is grown without chemicals and pesticides and is ecologically sound. Additionally, “real” food is community based so that local farmers can be supported, which in turn, helps the local economy. The club as a whole uses these terms to define “real” food, but Co-President Alexandra Nagy includes one more factor in the definition.

“I think all of those are really good rules, but I also include food that isn’t really processed that much,” Nagy said..“Fast food isn’t considered ‘real’ food, but there are exceptions.”

The main purpose of UCI Real Food Challenge is to provide education and awareness to the student body as to what “real” food is. In order to do this, the club hosts a “Real Food Dinner” once a quarter where students come together and discuss different topics regarding food. There are usually about 100 students at each dinner. At this event, students learn together, eat together and, through that process, come up with different ideas on how to improve the food practices at school.

Aside from hosting the dinners once a quarter, the club has also been very active in different campaigns. In the past, the club has worked to eliminate trays in dining halls, ban Styrofoam and monitor waste through the “Weigh the Waste” program.

The ban of Styrofoam has helped marine animals, the health of consumers and the general planet. Tray-less dining has also helped reduce student food waste. Since students are wasting less food, landfills are filled with less food and money is saved in order to help fund new sustainability projects. The “Weigh the Waste” program has shown that students are wasting 50 percent less food since the dining halls removed trays in 2008.

Although UCI Real Food Challenge has already instituted several campaigns, their work is still not finished. In the future, the club would like to start a breakfast campaign in order to make the food in the dining halls more interesting. The club would like to see additions such as a “Make Your Own Parfait” station that would include plain yogurt, high-quality granola and organic fruit. Although the dining halls sometimes offer parfaits, this creation would be different because students would be able to make it themselves in order to have a fresher product.

UCI Real Food Challenge has also been looking for ways to provide more humane meat in the dining halls. The club hopes to instill an educational awareness program that informs and educates students concerning the environmentally detrimental effects of meat consumption. The club is not interested in eliminating meat completely, as they understand that people have different cultural and social ties to this product and do not want to infringe upon or offend anyone’s beliefs. Rather, the club thinks it would be interesting to experiment with a sort of “Meatless Monday” campaign where meat would be removed from the dining halls for one day, and then they would gather student responses. If students were receptive to the idea, the money saved from not purchasing meat for one day could be used to buy more humanely treated meat for the rest of the week.

However, this is only a projected campaign and has just been discussed at different meetings.

The people of UCI Real Food Challenge are trying to find a better way to talk about eating meat, just as Jonathan Safran Foer writes in his novel “Eating Animals.” He writes that “we need a way that brings meat to the center of public discussion in the same way it is often at the center of our plates. This doesn’t require that we pretend we are going to have collective agreement … we all know in advance that our positions will clash with those of our neighbors. What do we do with that most inevitable reality? Drop the conversation, or find a way to reframe it?”

With whatever campaign that UCI Real Food Challenge embarks on in the future, the club’s main objective is to simply provide facts and resources for students to make their own decisions. The club does not want to tell anyone what they should eat or where they should buy their food — rather, they just want to provide information so that people can draw their own conclusions.