Alum builds sustainable food systems on college campuses

Take a moment and ask yourself: Where does my food come from? How did it arrive on my plate? If you’re like most Americans, you don’t know the detailed answer to that question. That’s why there are programs like The Real Food Challenge, dedicated to teaching people the answer to that simple inquiry, as well as educating them about the inhumane practices inherent in our food system. This clamor for public understanding of the injustices of industrial agriculture plays into a national food justice movement.

Anim Steel ’94 is an alum of the College working within this national food justice movement. An articulate and inquisitive guy whose life story includes a childhood spent in West Africa and an internship at NASA headquarters, Steel’s personality is nearly as interesting as his work. During the course of our interview, he asked me nearly as many questions as I asked him and was curious to hear my perspective on the food justice movement. This small gesture really gave me a feel for Steel as a leader; he was unassumingly brilliant and yet extremely open to others’ ideas and experiences.

Steel, who majored in astrophysics and history at the College, founded the Real Food Challenge in 2008. “The Real Food Challenge is a campaign to get colleges to use their buying power for building a healthy, fair and green food economy,” Steel said. The initiative is largely student-run with a goal of increasing “real food purchasing, and by that we mean more local and community-based, more ecologically sound, more fair and more humane [food],” he explained. “The campaign also pushes for increased transparency so that students can really know where their food is coming from and what kind of values and systems that purchasing supports.”

Though his work now revolves around issues of humane and sustainable food, Steel didn’t originally envision himself as a warrior for food justice. While at the College, Steel remembers, his “activities were pretty much not related to food or the environment. I was not terribly conscious of food aside from enjoying it just for eating,” he said. In fact, the astrophysics and history double major “was really focused more on science as a career,” he said. After graduating, he worked in the Office of Admission while considering applying to graduate programs. Steel credits this work with putting him “along the path of wanting to invest my time and energy in changing the disparities that are out there,” he said. “Basically I came away with the question: How do we make our communities that are hurting and poor [into] happier and healthier places?”

This central question framed the rest of Steel’s career as he began graduate work in community development. “It was while I was studying community development that I discovered food as a way to do community development to create jobs and health and well-being and pride,” he said. Steel came up with the idea for the Real Food Challenge while working as director of National Programs at the Food Project in Boston. “Part of my job was creating leadership gatherings for young people involving food justice,” Steel recalled. “I was able to see that there was this activity building on college campuses of an interest in local food purchasing or fair trade, but it was very fragmented. There was just no kind of coordination.” While interacting with a group of students and recent college graduates on a sustainable food policy for the California university system, Steel realized that, “We could make this movement more effective by creating a national organization and framework.” After a Real Food Summit at Yale in 2007 attracted more than 150 students from over 40 colleges, Steel and his colleagues began to define “real food” and frame their goals for a national program.

Today the Real Food Challenge is a network of over 350 schools and over 6000 students. “Students supported or trained by the Real Food Challenge have secured $48 million of real food commitments from their colleges and universities,” Steel said. A recipient of the Echoing Green award for social entrepreneurship in 2010, the Real Food Challenge has been recognized as an enterprise of revolutionary vision and profound effect. One initiative of the Real Food Challenge, Food Day, hopes to become what Earth Day is to the environmentalist community. According to the website for the Challenge, Food Day is “an opportunity for folks from all walks of life to unite around a common passion for food, no matter what part of the real food wheel we’re most invested in.” Last year, more than 35,000 people participated in Food Day-related events across 225 college and university campuses across the U.S. This year, the College joins in the activity with its own Food Week, centered around national Food Day, which is recognized around the country as occurring today.

Through programs like the national Food Day and the Real Food Challenge, Steel hopes to link the grassroots efforts toward building a sustainable food system. “There’s a lot of energy out there,” he said. “To me, the challenge right now is, ‘How does all that local energy and interest about food or food justice add up to something that is really powerful enough to change policy?’” But Steel sees the end goal as something greater than just changing policy; he believes the food justice movement can impact much more than our daily diet. “Studying the multicultural history of America has shaped me a lot in this work because I believe that food justice and sustainability is on a continuum of those [civil rights] movements,” he said. “It’s kind of an extension of a long-term struggle for health and fairness and democracy.”