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UMass takes up ‘Real Food Challenge’

AMHERST — The University of Massachusetts is amping up efforts to rely on locally produced food with the Real Food Challenge, a national movement pushing colleges to adopt more sustainable food practices, and a two-year grant from a Boston-based foundation.

The Real Food Challenge at UMass has set a goal of ensuring 20 percent of all food served at UMass is “real food” by 2020. “Real food” is defined as food that is grown locally and regionally, is organic, and is sustainably grown, humanely raised and produced with fair trade principles.

Participation in the challenge received a boost this fall when UMass snagged a two-year, $485,000 grant from the Henry P. Kendall Foundation of Boston, which aims to make contributions toward creating “a resilient and healthy food system in New England that increases the production and consumption of local, sustainably produced food.”

“We’re hoping this grant will be a catalyst for progress to this goal over the next couple of years,” said Rachel Dutton, sustainability manager for auxiliary services at UMass.

The commitment to this national challenge was signed by Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy last spring. Students taught by John Gerber, a professor and coordinator of the Sustainable Food and Farming Program, had spent two years advocating for it and lobbying for support from Ken Toong, executive director of auxiliary enterprises at UMass.

“To have UMass doing this is pretty incredible,” Gerber said. He noted that most of the other 18 colleges and universities that have signed into the commitment are much smaller.

More than 360 other colleges and universities, including Smith, Amherst, Hampshire and Mount Holyoke colleges, are also considered participants in the initiative.

Founded in Cambridge in 2008, the Real Food Challenge describes itself as “a national, student-driven campaign to reshape our food economy.”

Toong said the university’s location in the heart of a region rich with small farms, and its roots as an agricultural school, make efforts to purchase more local produce and offer healthier options for students a compelling initiative for UMass.

“Each year we are buying more and more local food,” he said.

He noted that in 2013, almost 30 percent of the produce used in the four dining commons and other campus dining areas came from local sources, including both area farms and, to a lesser degree, the campus permaculture gardens.

UMass is the second largest on-campus dining program in the country.

Test site

Dutton said Hampshire Dining Commons is being used as a testing ground for the Real Food Challenge. The idea is to increase the amount of local food served and figure out which sustainable practices work and which don’t.

Dutton said the food served will be evaluated on its health value as well as cost effectiveness, as UMass tries to create a model for other schools and build partnerships with them.

Meanwhile, UMass dining services must be doing something right, as UMass continues to earn plaudits for the cuisine its students are served.

A website that provides event listings at colleges across the country recently gave UMass high marks for its on-campus food.

When University Primetime unveiled its best 50 college dining experiences, UMass was ranked No. 1 based on opinions from students who eat at the four campus dining commons.

The latest poll follows the release of The Princeton Review’s Best Campus Food list in August, which put UMass in third place, based on a survey of 126,000 students at 378 colleges. In addition, Procrastination Station, the cafe inside the W.E.B. Du Bois Library, won Food Management magazine’s Best Concept Award for Best Convenience Retailing Concept last year.

On any given day, the dining commons have available 15 different world cuisines, including sushi, which Toong said UMass serves more of daily than anywhere else.

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