“Students are in a position to advocate and organize in unique ways, within the community of a university campus – and it would be a shame to not take advantage of these opportunities, or fail to build on the powerful history of student organizing and history of organizing for food and farm justice. So we have to organize. People want to see universities be accountable to their communities and the food system.” – Katie Blanchard
About Real Food Challenge: The Real Food Challenge (RFC) is an organization that leverages the power of students and universities to create a “healthy, fair and green food system.” Campus food programs are big business and RFC’s primary campaign is to shift $1B of existing food budgets towards local food sources – what the organization defines as “real food” – by 2020. Here’s how RFC defines real food: “Real food encompasses a concern for producers, consumers, communities, and the earth. We use this term to recognize that both the food system and the food movement must encompass and embrace a diversity of foci; “real food” represents a common ground where all relevant issues from human rights to environmental sustainability can converge.” RFC answers frequently asked questions about its work here.
To achieve its goal, the RFC maintains and cultivates a national network of student activists on college campuses. RFC has provided opportunities for networking, education and leadership development for thousands of emerging leaders.
The history of the RFC is fascinating and demonstrates the power of young people and self-organizing. It began as an independent program affiliated with The Food Project, a highly respected and generative non-profit based in Boston. In 2005, the Food Project’s Anim Steel and Anna Lappé hosted a discussion on “Local Food, Fair Trade, and the Power of Procurement” at the Kellogg Foundation’s Food and Society Policy Conference. It was a fertile discussion. At the 2006 conference, a group from the California Student Sustainability Coalition (including UC Santa Cruz’s Tim Galarneau), joined the Food Project’s youth delegation. The group began serious discussions about how creating a national network might strengthen the ability of students to influence food purchasing decisions on college campuses. The pilot network was initially called “Real Food Challenge.”
RFC has changed the food and sustainability landscape on campuses throughout the nation in significant ways. In 2011, Real Food summits held around the nation brought together 1,400 students and other stakeholders. Students trained and supported by the organization won $45 million in commitments for targeted purchasing…including a policy for the University of California system.
The Real Food Challenge also maintains a national network of student food activists—providing opportunities for networking, learning, and leadership development for thousands of emerging leaders.
About Katie Blanchard: Katie serves as the Midwest Regional Coordinator for the RFC. Regional coordinators are boots on the ground staff: they facilitate organizing, coordinate student campaigns and serve as the liaison between the organization and student leaders. In RFC, Katie organizes in the Midwest and is at the helm of fundraising, design, and communications projects.
Katie grew up amidst the lumberyards and orchards of Northern Michigan. Katie became a founding student leader of Real Food Challenge while attending Carleton College in Minnesota. While at Carleton, Katie re-started the student-run farm and founded Eat the Lawn, a public garden in the center of campus. She also did significant organizing and farm work with young, women and immigrant farmers across the region.
The UC Food Observer recently caught up with Katie for a conversation about her work.
Q: What is your role at Real Food Challenge?
Blanchard: My role is split between organizing with students mostly in the Midwest and South and doing the work of keeping our organization going, such as administration and communications. I’ve been involved with RFC since it started – I was a student that got engaged from the beginning. I’ve played a number of roles during my time with the organization.
Q: How and why did you get involved as a student?
Blanchard: I grew up in a small town in rural Northern Michigan, amidst orchards and lumberyards. I grew up in a family of rural leaders and learned that leadership and change-making means knowing your neighbors.
When I showed up to Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, getting involved with local issues and getting to know my neighbors meant getting to know a lot of farmers, or aspiring farmers. Through a community garden, I befriended a lot of immigrant folks who wanted to be farming but faced a ton of barriers – not the least, their sense that there was a not enough of a secure market to justify getting a farm going. They didn’t want to just stand at a farmer’s market every week.
My instinct was to have my college become a market for these kinds of farms. At the time, my college was not willing to purchase from local producers. I tried to begin to untangle this and realized that so many of the barriers were at a national, corporate level – not just at my one campus.
It became clear to me that the local changes we wanted wouldn’t happen if we only acted locally. There were global supply chains to consider and more. Like others, I wanted to build something national with young people and it was clear that it was only by working together that we could effect change.
The first years or RFC involved lots of connecting through regional and national summits, inspired a lot by organizing that had happened throughout the University of California system. All of us were trying to build up a network. We were gathering to test the question: “Do people want to connect nationally and organize?” And the answer was, “Yes, absolutely!”
Q: Can you tell our readers about recruitment strategies and challenges? What’s exciting you right now?
Blanchard: More students are connected than ever! There is a particular passion I have in this place – in the Midwest and the South – for organizing at big public land grant agricultural institutions that are here deep in agricultural regions.
I was so heartened by the recent Farm Aid gathering. I’d never been in a room of food movement people where a majority of the people were from the center of the country.
This was a huge motivation for me to get involved as a student at Carleton – I saw so much of what now gets called the “food movement” happening on the coasts, but there was less in the Midwest, even though our colleges are truly bordered by cornfields. And there was this disconnect: not having organizing in the belly of the beast of the industrial agricultural system.
But we’re changing that! Student leaders are building up support and power on a lot of land-grant campuses across the Midwest and South. We are bringing important questions to the fore and organizing support for fair, local, sustainable food – what we call “real food.”
Q: We are in a political season, so I have a political question. What national policies would you like to see around the food system?
Blanchard: Immediately my mind goes to land and markets. We need political change that makes land and what you need to start farming accessible to people – farmers of color, young farmers, immigrants, women. Nothing put a finer point on this then being in a room of several generations of farmers at Farm Aid. We need change like what we work on – to make markets accessible and policies and programs that support directly putting the tools in people’s hands and land under their feet.
Q: What keeps you up at night?
Blanchard: Two things keep me up at night: concerns about soil (its depletion and how much we lose every year) and the knowledge of producers (how much we lose every year as people age out of the profession).
This knowledge from farmers, ranchers and fishers can’t be captured in textbooks. We need people to be in relationship with producers to capture their deep knowledge and experience. We are doing a lot to build our local university campaigns in coalitions — building relationships with food producers, workers, local food system leaders, etc, to learn from and build on each other’s knowledge and experience.
Local and regional and institutional policy around food and agriculture moves a lot more quickly than national policy. Part of the problem is, I think, cracking open an understanding about how the Farm Bill works. Local and regional innovations can happen more quickly. And the institutional policies of universities – where we do our work – can become dominos that influence greater state and national change.
Q: What do you think of the effort to frame farming as public service?
Blanchard: It has to be recognized that way. This is a creative approach to acknowledging what I said earlier: that we have to make it easier for people to access the resources they need to farm. There is nothing more crippling than thinking about student debt. There are aspects of the National Young Farmer Coalition campaign that are addressing student debt. And that’s an important piece of the conversation we’re having with students right now.
Students are required to purchase meal plans at college. I think speaking more transparently about the costs of college to this next generation is vital. College debt is a burden on young people. How can we expect to have a flourishing future while this exists?
Q: Any “aha” moments in your work?
Blanchard: The greatest AHA moment for me every single day is around how important and great it is that we’re training people to organize and access their own leadership.
The skills of organizing are incredibly powerful. For example, “Black Lives Matter” was named at the Democractic debate. Just a year ago, people were not saying those words let alone engaging with the injustices and issues that make it necessary that the words be said. And that happened because of real organizing and leadership by a lot of young people.
We have clear goals around the money we want to shift from colleges and universities, but that is equal to our goal around leadership development and training people to organize. It’s an investment in the skills that I know this next generation of people will bring to the food system, movements, and research and a lot of what will power change in the future. I feel very confident in that bedrock.
Q: How do you deal with fear of what some perceive as the radical nature of organizing?
Blanchard: We’re in a time where a lot more of us are not surviving and thriving than those who are. Radical change is necessary! I think the alternative, if we don’t organize, is a scarier prospect.
Students are in a position to advocate and organize in unique ways, within the community of a university campus – and it would be a shame to not take advantage of these opportunities, or fail to build on the powerful history of student organizing and history of organizing for food and farm justice. So we have to organize. People want to see universities be accountable to their communities and the food system.
Q: What else would you want people to know?
Blanchard: We’re in a time when a lot of people are talking and writing. There is a lot of media around what change needs to look like around food. I just am very inspired and committed to the ways that we make sure in the food movement that we’re training ourselves to organize and to build power so that our communities have real strength and voice. I want everyone to know that young leaders are really here! Reach out if we haven’t connected yet – we’re ready to dig in, and eager do big things together.
Editor’s Note: The University of California’s Global Food Initiative is helping to address one of the most compelling issues of our time: how to sustainably and nutritiously feed the world’s growing population. And the institution is making important changes on its own campuses. Read more here.