UBC: A leader in sustainable and just food systems

Farm to Campus, Farm to School Farm to School Canada

By Neal Cameron

The University of British Columbia has been a leader in moving food service procurement towards supporting more sustainable and just food systems.

As the first Fair Trade Certified Campus in Canada and the first Canadian university to purchase exclusively OceanWise seafood, UBC has shown a commitment to engaging in food system change. While UBC has made progress in reducing its impact on the planet and bettering the lives of producers involved in feeding students, staff, and faculty. Working in tandem with the University, UBC’s Meal Exchange team is advocating to increase the amount of sustainable and just Good Food on campus. 

The Good Food Calculator is a tool used by students across Canada to research the amount of food on campus that is good for people and the planet. By establishing a baseline for the state of Good Food on Canadian University campuses, the Good Food Calculator helps set the foundation for the Good Food Challenge. The Good Food Challenge, based on the Real Food Challenge in the United States, asks campuses to commmit to procuring 20% Good Food by 2025. Meal Exchange has been working with UBC Student Housing and Hospitality Services to run the Good Food Calculator to evaluate food purchasing in 2018-19. The Good Food Calculator has been run at 11 campuses across the country, and uses standards that assess whether or not food is community-based, ecologically-sound, socially-just, and/or humane. UBC currently measures many of these attributes independently, but there is a lack of cross-sectional analysis of UBC’s food procurement. Furthermore, having national Good Food standards allows for more effective campus-to-campus comparison. For example, UBC purchases 60% of their food from local producers, which they define local food as processed, grown, or farmed within 400KM of campus. The Good Food Challenge places limits on the scale of producers and processors to consider them community-based. In order to effectively draw comparisons between campuses across Canada, it is critical to have standards and data that are consistent and allow for a true apples-to-apples comparison. Nevertheless, UBC is still making significant progress towards Good Food, including through its relationships with innovative suppliers and producers on campus and within the province of British Columbia.

The UBC Farm is a strong example of supplying good food to students while also developing a more direct relationship between students and the food they eat every day at their institutions. A 20 minute walk from the core of campus, and nestled between campus housing and a second-growth Hemlock forest, the 24 acre farm is primarily a teaching facility for students in the Faculty of Land and Food Systems, but also sells produce to UBC Food Services, the broader community, and other restaurants in Vancouver. The UBC Farm is certified organic and although the size constraints of the farm mean that by no means can all of the produce needs of UBC Food Services be met by the Farm, many beets, carrots, squash, and other vegetables served on campus are travelling less than 2 kilometers from farm to plate. 

Another innovative sourcing relationship that UBC has developed is with Vancouver Farmers Markets Direct (VFM Direct), which distributes produce from BC farms to restaurants throughout the lower mainland. Institutions like universities have expectations for their suppliers in terms of delivery frequency, quantity, and structure that are difficult for many small and medium sized farmers to meet. VFM Direct acts as an aggregator and distribution hub for many small and medium sized farmers throughout BC, allowing local farmers to be able to access large-scale customers such as UBC. While quantity and seasonality restraints limit the amount UBC is able to purchase from VFM Direct and its farmers, UBC Food Services has still been able to work collaboratively with VFM Direct to bring more Good Food onto students plates. 

One key factor that allows UBC to be able to experiment with its food system’s supply chain, make and meet sustainability commitments, integrate a diverse range of actors, and continue to serve more Good Food on campus is that it is entirely self-operated and managed by UBC. As such, decisions about food procurement and sourcing are controlled by the University, and sustainability commitments can be translated into concrete action. Without the direct accountability and control that comes with in-house operation, the objectives of the university, student body, and for-profit food service providers can conflict, adding complexity and challenges in the pursuit of Good Food for all.

Neal Cameron is living, working, and studying in Vancouver, BC, where he has called home since 2016.This summer, Neal was the Good Food Challenge Campus Coordinator at UBC, where he audited food purchasing and furthered conversations about increasing Good Food on campus. Passionate about the intersection of youth engagement and the Sustainable Development Goals, Neal has worked on the promotion of Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights at the United Nations and has organized multiple youth summits advocating for a more peaceful, just, and equitable world around the International Day of Peace. Eager to drive system and social change, he spends his time away from the Good Food Challenge on social and emotional learning for our world’s youngest global citizens, ensuring that all children are able to receive a comprehensive education that not only empowers them to succeed in the workplace, but also in their relationships and societies at large. 

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