As an Environmental Analysis major who is “committed to sustainability and social justice,” Samantha Meyer PO ’10 has long been curious about the nutritional value of the college’s cuisine.
“I’ve found it really frustrating that students are required to be on the meal plan and yet we are not given any information about the food we have to eat,” she said. “We have no idea where this food comes from, what’s in it, or whether it meets any ethical standards.”
After attending the Real Food Challenge (RFC) West Coast Summit last summer, Meyer decided to further research the food served at Pomona’s dining halls.
Sustainability Integration Office Director Bowen Close suggested Meyer write her thesis on the topic, so Meyer began an intensive study of Frary Dining Hall.
During October 2009, Meyer tracked every food item served at Frary, analyzing more than $150,000 worth of food purchases. She used the RFC’s Real Food Calculator, a system designed to evaluate the percentage of what they refer to as “Real Food” that is coming into academic institutions. In order to qualify as “Real,” an item must be locally-grown, ecologically-sound, fair (produced under decent working conditions and more sustainably), or humane (the animals were raised in satisfactory living conditions). A distinction is made between foods that meet only one of these qualifications (Real Food B), and foods that meet two or more (Real Food A). Some ingredients, such as high fructose corn syrup and trans fats, automatically disqualify a food from being Real.
After calling the companies and farms that supply Frary with each food item, Meyer discovered that 8.9 percent of the food served at the dining hall in October was Real.
“This is a really low number, given that an item only has to meet one of the standards to be Real,” Meyer said.
Only 2.1 percent of the food met two of the standards.
Meyer said one of her most shocking discoveries was that most of the packaged bread available at Frary contains an additive called Azodicarbonamide. This flour-bleaching agent is also used to make plastic foamy. The use of the additive in food is banned in Europe and Australia, and punishable by 15 years in prison in Singapore.
“Sam discovered a lot more additives in the food than I’d thought [existed],” Close said. “And a lot of our desserts aren’t made from scratch, which is a little scary. Most of the yogurt has gelatin, so it’s not vegetarian. This was eye-opening.”
None of the food served at Frary in October could be defined as humane.
“One hog farmer openly admitted that some of the sausages we are served are made from animals that are fed animal by-products and that the animals are pumped full of antibiotics,” Meyer said.
Meyer said finding out where the food came from, not to mention whether it was Real, was a struggle. In one case, a squash company insisted they had never sold to Sysco, the company that distributes most of Frary’s food.
“It was very challenging to get information,” she said. “A lot of the people I talked to had never heard these questions before. We’re living in a society where that’s completely acceptable.”
Meyer hopes her discoveries will serve as a call to action. She is in the process of writing a summarized version of her thesis to share with the student body.“This semester, I’m trying to build a student movement to address these issues,” she said. “At this point, the purchase of Real food is arbitrary. This is a progressive liberal arts institution feeding students things that are really unhealthy. It’s time for students to demand that the College take these issues seriously.”
Close also encouraged student action.
“The number one thing students can do is make it clear to Dining Services or the Administration what they want to see in the dining halls,” she said, adding she believes student opinion holds more sway at the 5Cs than it would at a single college campus.
“As part of a consortium, we’re in a unique position,” she said. “We have to compete with other dining halls—we’ll lose money when students go to other schools to eat.”
Scripps’ and Harvey Mudd’s dining halls, like Pomona’s, are managed by Sodexo, a multinational food services company, whereas Pitzer and Claremont McKenna are managed by Bon Appetit, a company with more than 400 locations in 29 states.
“At the very least, Bon Apetit has better labeling,” Meyer said.
Meyer, Close, Assistant Director of Campus Services Margie McKenna and General Manager of Dining Services Dave Janosky took a trip to UC-Davis in February to compare the schools’ dining halls. UC-Davis’s dining operations are also managed by Sodexo.
Meyer discovered, “There’s a lot of flexibility in how Sodexo operates in different schools.”
UC-Davis’s Real Food percentage, as stated in their 2009 Sustainable Foodservices Practices Report, is 21 percent, much higher than Pomona’s, so Meyer and Close are currently investigating the differences.
Meyer and Close have discussed the results of her research with Dining Services employees.
“We’re working together to implement changes,” Meyer said. “One of the biggest impediments to large-scale change is cost. As we all know, Pomona is a wealthy school, we’re just not choosing to put our money into food issues. But this is really something we need to be thinking about. As students we learn about these issues in our classes all the time and it’s really confusing not to see the College address these issues in the food they purchase.”