The ‘Real Food Challenge’

By Kristine Hoang

Bean sprouts, carrots, tomatoes and squash. who would’ve thought these plants would have made a difference?

The Real Food Challenge chapter (RFC) at the University of California, Irvine thinks so. Whether or not the food we eat is real — meaning that it was actually grown in soil and not chemically enhanced — affects society.

Aside from meeting every Wednesday to organize “the Food Movement,” this group of Anteaters holds larger events, such as the Real Food Dinner hosted with UCI dining and launching the ASUCI garden in Arroyo Vista this past spring. They are UCI’s very own food activists.

The Real Food Challenge is a national organization dedicated to reallocating the $4 billion spent each year from processed foods to more natural food. They have groups on more than 300 campuses and hold leadership summits to plan and encourage networking.

At UCI, the Real Food Challenge is working with the UC Sustainable Food Services Working Group in hopes of achieving 20 percent “real” food in dining halls by 2020.

The Food Movement was brought to UCI in part by Hai Vo, a class of 2009 graduate who co-started the Real Food Challenge chapter at UCI. Formerly overweight and a victim of Type 2 diabetes, Hai made a complete 180 in what he was eating when he came to college.

“It was April and I was graduating in two months. I was looking at pictures of myself, and I hadn’t looked at myself in a long time. I was like, ‘Who is that?’ I was looking at someone who was unreal to me. And so I put on shorts, a headband and a sweater and I would just run around my block at 11 o’ clock at night because I didn’t want anyone to see me. I remember once I was sprinting on the sidewalk … until, by the time I got to the end of the street, I threw up everything I had eaten earlier that day.”

In the summer of 2008, Hai started farming, studying food history and doing research on his own. “What I choose to eat,” says Hai, “is based on my health, what I feel in my gut after I eat it, and that I know these are foods my mom or my grandparents would have eaten growing up  … In terms of what I’m trying to do right now some can say it is as ‘halioprimal’ (what people ate before the Industrial Revolution) so I look at evolutionary nutrition and how people sustained and survived years ago.”

“What would it look like,” wonders Hai, “if people in our society started eating what their grandparents started eating — that would totally change how we use our land, our water and how we interact with each other. For me, food is not only a human right and something that I need to survive, but I think it’s something that can be used to change our social systems and inequalities. Food can shape society.”

When Hai goes grocery shopping, he looks for things that have very little processing. “I look for things that don’t have words I can’t understand or pronounce, that don’t have refined sugar, wheat or things like natural flavoring, soy aceletes or hydrologized proteins.” If Hai has any questions about the ingredients, he calls the food manufacturers himself.

Nowadays, however, Hai rarely shops — he grows most of his own food.

On Wednesday, May 18, the Real Food Challenge at UCI held their fourth annual Real Food Dinner in the Silverado Room at Mesa Commons.

This year’s theme is Real Food Accessibility. Black cloths cover the tables of Mesa Common’s Silverado Room. On each table is a tab that says, “Taste Don’t Waste!” There are around 100 people in attendance. The food, which many have vocalized excitement over, is spread over a long table, dish next to dish, ending with desserts.

As Alfredo, a current RFC member and Sustainability Intern with UCI dining, brings the attention to the front, the chatter ends. “We’re working close to UCI dining to meet our goal of 20 percent real food by 2020,” he announces.

Alfredo finally introduces the panel: UCI Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Timothy J. Bradley; Aramark representative Robert Perez; co-founder and executive director of the Grain Project, a Santa Ana-based non-profit that promotes sustainable communities, Lara Montagne and UCI undergraduate Colin Murphy (who is the co-founder and current coordinator of the Arroyo Vista Sustainability House).

The two chefs of the night are Chef Baca and Chef Juan. Chef Baca annouces the menu for the night: a green salad with pickled oranges, goat cheese and red onions; another salad using “simple sea salt,” olive oil, lemon juice and balsamic; grilled asparagus with roasted garlic and balsamic; fish with very little seasoning; “simple charbroiled chicken breast glazed with a little bit of cheri”; vegetarian pasta with alfalfa beans; and home-made beignets for dessert. Water, fair-trade coffee and natural lemonade are served for drinks.

Their inspiration, Baca says, was the farmers, with all the produce used coming from only a 250-mile radius. “I hope we all appreciate the farmers who’ve provided us with this food,” Alfredo says. Dinner begins.

After the dinner, the panel begins. How can sustainable foods be made more accessible to people? Alfredo asks. Sustainable foods are known for being harder to find in grocery stores and are more expensive. Lower income individuals, then, are out of luck when it comes to access.

Lara is the first to answer the question. It is true that this discrepancy, she says, exists. Irvine, for instance, has great resources, such as the farmers market. Santa Ana, on the other hand, is a food desert, a lower-socioeconomic area where sustainable foods are difficult to obtain. Bradley interjects, “the first things that need to be dealt with are affordability, transportation, and education.”

The real issue is the lack of interest in sustainable foods, says Bradley. Until enough people become interested in sustainable foods, prices will remain high and production will remain low.

The government, while well-meaning, is largely ineffective.

“When we tried to get certification to open a farmers market in Santa Ana,” says Lara, “some government officials didn’t even know what a farmers market was.”

“At the Real Food Challenge,” Colin says, “we’ve realized that the food system is broken. My question is: how can a food system that is harmful to consumers possibly provide something good — nourishment — to the people it feeds? What I think we should do,” says Colin, “is overhaul the Farm Bill, a federal bill that funds the production of cellulosic ethanol, research for pests, diseases and other agricultural problems. For the past 60 years, however, the Farm Bill has been written by big business and doesn’t reflect the nourishment people really need.”

The question of education also came up. “I think we need to incorporate ‘food literacy’ into our curriculum,” says Colin. “People do not know the history of the food they eat. We need to learn about food in a more scientific way. The food movement needs to constitute what is actually good for the human body.”

Alexandre Covalin comments on the ASUCI garden: “We created a garden not to grow food, but to ‘grow’ students … because food is not on the school curriculum. We need to teach students not to learn how to farm but to think about where their food came from. We need to expose them to these kinds of things as much as possible.”

“I think the garden is going to be a wonderful example for people who know nothing about where their food comes from,” says Charlene Bradley, the ASUCI Community Garden Organizer.

Once the panel finished, students break into groups to discuss the topics that have been brought up. A girl in my group, a second-year film and media, and business economics major named Marissa Mekvichitsaeng offers her criticisms on what has been discussed, taking an economic point of view: “What about supply? If we increase demand we’ll have to increase supply, and that would be a threat to our natural wild life. We wouldn’t want that. On the other hand, if we increase demand, prices will go up (because of supply, and they’re always trying to reach a state of equilibrium), and so we wouldn’t be able to afford it. The reason why we have pesticides is because it’s efficient and affordable. What I think we need to focus on is technological advances.”

It’s a different take on things, but this just shows that trying to make the world a more sustainable place is still a matter of debate.