DU Students for Sustainable Food battles for real food on campus

Student Bianca Garcia eats Sodexo fare in Centennial Halls

Student Bianca Garcia eats Sodexo fare in Centennial Halls

“Rubbery”, “Not-quite-thawed-out”, “Violently over-cooked”, and “Obviously scraped off the back of some long-forgotten freezer” are a few of the notable reviews of Sodexo food by DU students, as posted on the Sodexo comment board in the Centennial Halls dining hall. But one student organization on campus is dedicated to changing all of that.

DU Students for Sustainable Food has been championing for a change in the University-sponsored dining for quite some time. But rather than focus on getting rid of Sodexo as some have suggested, this org is dedicated to working with the food concession firm to change food preparation practices.

The Real Food Challenge, which the University signed in May 2014 has presented an outline for serving healthier, locally sourced options in DU cafeterias over the course of the next five years.

The challenge

“Getting the Real Food Challenge at DU was just the brilliant idea that came out of nowhere,” said Students for Sustainable Food member Chelsea Sumnere, 21. “We started working on it in spring 2013, and finally got it signed almost a year ago”.

The Challenge, according the Sumnere, is to serve 20 percent ‘Real’ (meaning not frozen, and sourced more sustainably) food on campus by 2020.

“Obviously we’d ultimately like Sodexo to serve 100 percent real food at DU,” Sumnere said. “But we also needed a tangible and realistic goal that we could strive for. Sometimes taking just one baby step at a time is the answer.”

Another crucial part of the Real Food Challenge is that Sodexo will have total transparency with all food purchases they make, so that improvements in sourcing and shipping can be tracked.

“It’s a huge commitment from a food service provider, and we understand that. Sodexo is the first food contracting service in the US to sign on to the Real Food Challenge, and they should be applauded for that.”


The tower garden in the Halls dining hall

The tower garden in the Halls dining hall

Baby steps

One way that the Students for Sustainable Food are helping Sodexo to meet the Real Food Challenge is in finding ways to grow ingredients and foodstuffs right here on campus.

“The hydro-tower garden was kind of my brainchild. Not to brag, but it was,” Madi Jones, 20, also of Students for Sustainable Food, said. “It’s pretty small-scale, but if it works, I think the goal is to go bigger with it.”

Jones refers to the new tower-garden installed in the Centennial Halls dining facility, a device which is called “the future of urban gardening” on the Tower Gardens website. Currently a handful of basil sprouts call the tower, which cycles water and nutrients vertically by the seed pods, home.

“The Sodexo staff have been phenomenal about helping us with the tower,” Jones said. “They’re as excited about this as we are, and definitely deserve a lot of thanks for their role in making this a reality.”

While there’s currently only one hydro-tower growing herbs on campus, the ultimate goal, according to the Students for Sustainable Food, is to grow many of the ingredients used in food preparation on or near campus.


A learning process

“It hasn’t been all an easy ride,” confessed Jones. “We’ve made some mistakes and this – the tower garden and the Real Food Challenge in general – are absolutely a learning process.”

It isn’t difficult to see, looking at the tower, that not many of the sprouts are in tip-top condition.

A healthy basil sprout in the tower garden

A healthy basil sprout in the tower garden

“We had a bit of an accident over spring break,” Bianca Garcia, 21, said. “The system we had set up to water these sprouts while the dining halls were closed down didn’t work right. We’re trying to bring them back, but I think we’ve lost about half this batch by now.”

With another group of healthy herb sprouts started in a greenhouse in Olin Hall, however, Students for Sustainable Food hopes to learn from this experience and put it behind them as they move forward.

“Learning how to maintain the tower is very exciting,” Garcia, another member of Students for Sustainable Food, said. “We’re all learning how to do it and taking turns. It’s a process, but we’ll get there. We’re all so dedicated.”


A long way to go

 With one year under the belt and five left, how is the University matching up to the goals set forth by the Real Food Challenge?

“It’s been slow. We’ve still got a long way to go,” said Sumnere. “We’re compiling our one year review right now, and it looks like we’ve got about 6 percent of real food served on campus. That’s 3 percent more than last year. It’s an improvement, but we’re going to have to step up our game.”

Students for Sustainable Foods, the University of Denver, and Sodexo all have plans to help make it happen, though.

“The University has set aside some space for us to rebuild the Bridge Community Garden, which was torn up last year,” Garcia said. “There’s going to be a bed or two set aside for Students for Sustainable food, where they can cultivate even more food locally during the warm months.”

“It’s been a slow first year,” Sumnere said. “But you know what they say about gardens: the first year they sleep, the second year they creep, the third year they leap. This is the same thing. We learned a lot of important stuff this past year, and we’re ready to keep moving.”

2 Responses to DU Students for Sustainable Food battles for real food on campus

  • Lucy Constantino
    Lucy Constantino says:

    Cool story, Julie! I had no idea there was a tower garden on campus, or that Sodexo was taking steps toward cooking with real food on campus. I’ve spoken with Sodexo employees before and they are very kind and work hard at what they do to make every student a happy eater. I was wondering if the 20% real food figure is for meat or vegetables or both? Do you also know why they chose the 20% figure as opposed to a higher or lower number? Was that just the most tangible goal?

  • Julie Brunette
    Julie Brunette says:

    Hi Lucy! I think that the 20% figure applies to all food served, but they’ll probably try to reach it mostly through vegetables because I imagine that’s a good deal easier to over-see. From what I got from talking with the SSF members, the 20% figure was arrived at a) because it seemed like a realistic, but challenging, goal and b) so that it would be 20% by 2020 (apparently they’re very fond of repeating numbers, haha). Thanks for the great comment!

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