The university committed to reaching 40 percent local and/or sustainable food by 2025. Some campus food is produced on-campus from sources like Waterman Farm. Credit: Casey Cascaldo | Photo Editor

A panel of students and faculty have been working since April 2016 to develop a plan to bring Ohio State’s food sourcing closer to home.

Ohio State’s Food Sustainability Panel is now awaiting a response from university leadership on its final report on how to achieve 40 percent local and/or sustainable food purchasing on campus by the year 2025.

In April 2016, Provost Bruce McPheron and Vice President of Student Life Javaune Adams-Gaston commissioned the Sustainability Institute, then called the Office of Energy and Environment, to create the food sustainability panel and develop a plan to transition university purchasing to 40 percent local and sustainable sources.

Now, it has been three months since the panel submitted their recommendations to McPheron and Adams-Gaston.

“We believe that we should be a great steward of our food systems,” Zia Ahmed, senior director of dining services, said. “We are very different than traditional dining services. Our primary business is not to serve food; our primary business is student development.”

Ahmed said their work did not stop throughout the process of creating the report or while waiting for feedback. He said the panel needs comments from university leadership to determine next steps.

Brian Snyder, executive director of the Initiative for Food and Agricultural Transformation, said nearly 50 people were involved on the panel over the span of 2 1/2 years.

“More and more people these days are interested in where their food comes from and how it’s produced,” Snyder said. “That’s true of students, but it’s also true of faculty and staff here and community members.”

Ahmed, Snyder and Sophie Chang, former Undergraduate Student Government vice president and alumna, led the panel from 2016 until Chang graduated in 2018.

Kaleigh O’Reilly, a third-year in environmental science, joined the panel’s leadership when she was elected deputy director of the USG sustainability committee last year.

“Food is such a central part of everyone’s life we eat three meals a day our lives almost revolve around it,” O’Reilly said. “We will be able to generate better outcomes if we put better food into our bodies.”

Although the report is not public, the panel presented a summary of its findings at the 2019 Community Engagement Conference in January.

In its presentation, the panel stated the university will use third parties to determine whether a food source meets standards for sustainability.

The food provider must meet standards in at least two of the five categories outlined in the report: environmental, economic, workers, animals and communities.

“We are requiring that a product meet the environmental category at least, and then one other category,” Snyder said. “If it’s an animal product, then that other category has to be animal welfare.”

Snyder said that food qualifies as local if it is within 275 miles of Ohio State campuses, including Lima, Mansfield and Newark. This measurement includes areas outside of Ohio as local.

According to the presentation, 11 percent of campus food came from local food sources in 2018.

“Those numbers could be significantly higher than 11 percent already,” Ahmed said. “I’m confident that we are going to be able to meet our goal based on the speed that we are going on right now.”

Ahmed said some campus food is already grown on Waterman Agricultural and Natural Resources Laboratory — a 261-acre farm west of campus — at local greenhouses and small boutique farms in the Columbus area.

Attention surrounding food sustainability was heightened in September 2015 when the student organization, Real Food at OSU, protested and occupied Bricker Hall to persuade the university to sign the Real Food Campus Challenge.

The nationwide challenge asked universities to commit 20 percent of their food purchasing to “local, sustainable, fair, and/or humane” farms and food businesses.

“This 40-percent goal was set before the big discussion or movement about the Real Food Challenge because the university was looking for an overall sustainability goal,” Ahmed said.

“The university assigned mutliple project teams to come up with very ambitious and aggressive sustainability goals for all aspects of the university, whether it’s zero-waste, reduces fuel uses, tree canopy usage, you name it,” Ahmed said.

Ahmed said he does not have the current percentage of local/sustainable purchasing, but he is confident the numbers are close to 20 percent.

“This is a very exciting time for Ohio State and for the community because we’re really doing a lot of planning behind the scenes … the entire community can look forward to some transformation in the food system in the years to come,” Snyder said.

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