'Real' improvement: Johns Hopkins brings more local, sustainable food to campus

Partnerships with farmers, menu changes move university closer to goal

When Johns Hopkins committed to the Real Food Challenge in 2013, the university joined a national network of schools that pledged to serve more "real food"—food that is local, sustainable, humane, and fair-trade.

Johns Hopkins sophomore Sunny Kim

Image caption: Johns Hopkins sophomore Sunny Kim

Image credit: Courtesy Sunny Kim

The challenge's recommended goal of 20 percent of food purchases meeting the criteria was an ambitious one, considering that only 7 percent of university food purchases had earned the "real food" classification the year before. Nonetheless, Johns Hopkins University President Ronald J. Daniels went beyond the recommended goal, signing a pledge to stock campus eateries with 35 percent real food by 2020.

"This is a significant investment, not just in the health of our students, faculty, and staff, but in the well-being of our city and region," Daniels said after signing the pledge. "It demonstrates our commitment, as the city's largest private employer, to sustaining the community we call home."

Real Food Hopkins, JHU's student chapter of the national Real Food Challenge organization, campaigned for the shift away from industrial agriculture. The group works to bring real food to Hopkins, and they're already seeing results in the year-plus since the pledge was signed.

"We're supposed to be the leaders of the world. I think we have tremendous consumer power, and institutions like this allow us to leverage our power," says Sunny Kim, a sophomore global environmental change and sustainability major who is involved with the Real Food organization both at Hopkins and nationally.

For the 2013-14 school year, the Fresh Food Café's real food purchases totaled 26 percent, surpassing the goal recommended by the Real Food Challenge. A dining contract with Bon Appetit Management helped, positioning the university to connect with more than 25 suppliers from local farms, co-ops, and artisan vendors. Their Farm to Fork program gives chefs tremendous freedom. They travel throughout the region, meet with farmers, and request seasonal produce to feature on menus.

Today, no single item prepared on the Homewood campus contains trans fat, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), or MSG. The Fresh Food Café's salad bar is stocked with veggies from Big City Farms, an urban farming company that transforms vacant city lots into greenhouses. All beef, shell eggs, and milk come from local farms.

Canola oil used on campus is sourced from a local farmer who grows the seed, presses it, and delivers it to campus himself. He picks up the used oil, converts it to biodiesel, and is able to use it to farm the next round of canola seeds.

"Food is not only supposed to nourish us, but it's supposed to nourish the earth," Kim says.

Kim and the more than 20 other students of Real Food Hopkins organized a partnership with One Straw Farms that brought a community supported agriculture (CSA) distribution to campus. Students and faculty picked up seasonal produce every week at the Charles Street Market throughout the fall. Kim's latest project is to create a relationship between Baltimore-based Stone Mill Bakery and a local wheat mill to create flour for pizza dough. Cold cuts will soon earn the real food mark, too, when a new deli provider comes to campus.

Kim's involvement with the Real Food Challenge dates back to her days at a Connecticut prep school with a farming heritage, Hotchkiss. She worked on the school's 280-acre farm, harvesting kale, arugula, and sweet corn to supply the bountiful farm-to-table feasts in the dining hall. As a member of the national movement, she is working to provide more schools with the resources to take the pledge.

Kim and other Real Food Challenge members are nominated for a Unite4:Humanity award, which would include a $50,000 prize for the organization and, Kim says, make expansion possible. Voting runs through Sunday at inspiration.unite4.org.

"We're at a turning point," Kim says. "I really think we're about to explode."

Real Food Hopkins is part of the Johns Hopkins Sustainability Network, an informal group of students, staff, and faculty who are committed to smart and responsible actions that prioritize people, natural resources, and finances to safeguard the health of future generations. Their efforts play a role in helping Johns Hopkins meet its goal, set in 2008, of reducing its carbon footprint 51 percent by 2025. To learn more about recent accomplishments or about how you can get involved, visit sustainability.jhu.edu.