Ten years ago, Colorado College’s meal service was in a state of disaster. Appalled by the horrendous quality of their dining options, students, staff, and faculty rallied to end Sodexo’s contract and called for a new company to take its place. They settled on Bon Appétit, a company dedicated to promoting sustainable food systems. At the time, it pledged to source 20 percent of the college’s food locally.
At first, Bon Appétit succeeded admirably, gaining a stellar reputation among students for their conscious choice to support just and sustainable food production. By 2012, Bon Appétit’s then-General Manager Beth Gentry was overseeing the purchase of 45 percent local food—more than double Bon Appétit’s original commitment—on a budget smaller than today’s. Gentry’s success proved that quality and affordability were not mutually exclusive, and that a meal service could be equitable both for students and for farmers and producers along the supply chain.
Since Gentry’s departure five years ago, however, the quantity of food being purchased locally has drastically declined, even as the price of the meal plan has steadily increased. Bon Appétit’s current management claims that this decline has occurred because purchasing local, sustainable, and fair food is too expensive. They charge that the students interested in improving food purchasing have goals at odds with the students interested in making the meal plan more financially accessible, but the choice between food quality and food price is a false dichotomy. Both are issues of food equity, meaning equal access to food that is local, affordable, and healthy. Food equity recognizes that fresh food is a human right for all people and requires that this food be produced outside of structures of oppression.
Every day, Bon Appétit makes the choice whether or not to use our money to buy into an industrial food system that contributes to global climate change, to the exploitation of brown bodies, and to neoliberal economic policies that limit the development and potential of the Global South. This unjust food system is the second largest emitter of greenhouse gases, as well as the leading cause of deforestation worldwide. It could not function without the migrant laborers who sow, spray, and harvest the crops, and for whom there is no minimum wage and no protections against injury or abuse. Outside of the U.S., lopsided trade deals that allow the importation of cheap crops like quinoa and avocados devastate local communities no longer able to afford their own staple foods.
Demanding local food is not about patting ourselves on the back for being conscientious consumers; it is about refusing to benefit from the exploitation of agricultural laborers around the world, demanding farmworkers’ rights and sovereignty, and supporting the farmers in our own community who have committed their lives to defying the power of the industrial food system.
But food equity does not permit the purchase of local food at the expense of our own community’s inclusivity and integrity—it demands both. Five years ago, CC was well on its way to accomplishing this with a meal plan that was both less expensive and more just. To achieve this again, Bon Appétit must prioritize purchasing local food over many of the other costs that drive up the price of the meal plan, such as the numerous brands of kombucha and the real crab in our sushi.
Food equity also requires that students be given autonomy over their participation in the meal plan. Bon Appétit is the party responsible for deciding whether a student is eligible for exemptions from the meal plan, a power structure that puts student mental and physical health in direct conflict with the corporation’s profits. This decision-making power should be transferred to the college, and exemptions should be granted not only for medical reasons, but for financial, cultural, religious, and ideological reasons as well. Limiting student agency in the meal plan exacerbates the on-campus socio-economic divide by disregarding the diversity of student backgrounds, cultures, and preferences, which contributes just as much to an inequitable food system as does the exploitative production of the food itself.
To increase student agency, alternatives to the meal plan should be made available, such as student-run co-ops, where students take shifts cooking for the community, and bulk-buying clubs, where students can purchase quality ingredients at wholesale prices. Either of these options would drastically increase the ability of students to eat the foods of their choice at affordable prices, respecting the cultural, religious, and dietary preferences of all.
In order to achieve food equity for all students on campus, we must demand improvements from Bon Appétit in terms of both food sourcing and accessibility. Food equity cannot exist with only one and not the other. A meal plan that is cheap because its food is exploitative and unsustainable does not qualify as equitable. A meal plan that is inaccessible because its food is sustainable and fair does not qualify as equitable either. Our meal plan must be, and can be, both. It has been done before and can be done again. Bon Appétit can choose to prioritize real food within their existing budget, and they can choose to respect student agency in determining what kind of meal plan works for them. It’s only a matter of holding them accountable.