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Just Food UMBC struggles with Chartwells to further sustainable food

What we consume at UMBC is often a mystery: True Grit’s provides healthy greens, but students don’t know where those eats are sourced from. UMBC’s student run food policy consultation group, Just Food UMBC, has been working to promote a more sustainable food system at UMBC. Since its start in Spring 2014, the group has hit many road blocks in trying to meet their vision.

Founded in Fall 2014 by now-graduated student Kelsey Donnellan, Just Food UMBC was originally Real Food UMBC. The group was tied to an organization called the Real Food Challenge, but has since changed its name and distanced itself from the larger group.

“[The Real Food Challenge] is a national organization with this thing called the real food commitment and it’s a document that … binds the university into doing 20 percent real food by 2020 and that’s pretty much our same goal,” said Maura Smith, director of Just Food UMBC. “It’s the idea of shifting dining services’ purchasing power towards real food which we define as local, organic, humane and fair.”

The national average for real food as defined by the Real Food Challenge at universities in the US is three to seven percent, and despite efforts to grow UMBC’s percentage Just Food UMBC has not received this information. In order to find out how much of UMBC’s food is defined as real food, Just Food UMBC would have to receive invoices that document where all food on campus comes from.

“[The invoices are] where we encountered our roadblocks. These invoices are like stacks high, like a five inch stack of just documents of all the foods that the dining service orders. Since we’ve contracted out our dining, directors don’t really know where the food comes from … we want to know regularly where it comes from,” Smith said.

Just Food UMBC became active in Spring 2015 and originally planned to receive the invoices. However, in March 2015, an unspecified corporate member of Chartwells not from the UMBC campus shut down their operation. Despite the multiple efforts of Smith to get in contact with Chartwells, they are still unsure who is blocking their efforts.

“Chartwells is probably one of the least transparent dining organizations,” Smith explained, “I even emailed their corporate asking to see an organizational chart for my area and they don’t answer.”

As the third best location for Chartwells, UMBC is known as a center of excellence or pilot location. Therefore UMBC sets a precedent for company-wide changes.

Due to this, Just Food UMBC had to cut ties with Real Food Challenge and focus on finding out how much incentive there was on campus to further their cause. Without the invoices, they spent the Spring 2015 semester researching dining services. They plan to reapproach the group.

Just Food UMBC’s ultimate goal is to have a stake in the new Dining Services contract in 2018 when it expires. They hope to push more local food that meets at least two out of three the real food standards, move variety in food choices as well as information about where all the food comes from at UMBC.

When the contract is up, the request for proposal for a new one will go out in January 2018 and go through the Maryland General Assembly as well as the Board of Regents in a scoping process where dining companies will make bids to serve the campus.

“I definitely want to keep Chartwells,” Smith said, “I just want transparency.”

“‘Just Food [UMBC] gives students the opportunity to promote sustainable food options on campus while improving the health and well-being of our students, our environment and our economy. That’s no small task,” said Nancy McAllister, adjunct professor of environmental science at UMBC.

This semester, Just Food UMBC has been working with SGA to create a resolution to further their initiatives. Come the Fall 2016 semester, Smith hopes to push for the invoice audit once again with more success.