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11/26/2013 04:24 pm ET Updated Dec 02, 2013

Johns Hopkins' Cafeteria Food Will Soon Suck Less, And Be Better For The Planet

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Bad news for students who came to Johns Hopkins hoping for old-fashionedly awful cafeteria food.

Goodbye traditional sloppy Joes. Hello massive varieties of apples and Baltimore-made pickles. And, we suppose, maybe sloppy Joes made from locally-sourced beef.

One third of the food served at Johns Hopkins University will come from what the school describes as "local, sustainable, humane and fair-trade" sources by 2020, per a student-led initiative that the university signed onto in early November.

The Baltimore Sun has details:

In six years, the college plans to increase its servings of local, sustainably grown food to 35 percent of all ingredients, becoming one of a handful of universities nationwide to make such a commitment about its cuisine.

The move comes at a time of growing interest in where food comes from and how it is grown. More than a dozen small urban farms are scattered throughout Baltimore, including one started by Hopkins students on its nearby Eastern campus on 33rd Street.

"This is a significant investment, not just in the health of our students, faculty and staff, but in the wellbeing of our city and region," President Ronald J. Daniels said in a news release. "It demonstrates our commitment, as the city's largest private employer, to sustaining the community we call home."

Real Food Challenge, the organization behind the push toward these changes, says on its website that the group "leverages the power of youth and universities to create a healthy, fair and green food system":

Our primary campaign is to shift $1 billion of existing university food budgets away from industrial farms and junk food and towards local/community-based, fair, ecologically sound and humane food sources—what we call “real food”—by 2020.

The Real Food Challenge also maintains a national network of student food activists—providing opportunities for networking, learning, and leadership development for thousands of emerging leaders.

“As we build momentum and as more schools sign on, it’ll be easier for others to do it because more infrastructure for food distribution systems and best practices and knowledge will have been developed,” Real Food Challenge's mid-Atlantic regional coordinator, Jon Berger, told the AP.

If there's some indication that other schools in the area are going to follow suit, for now Johns Hopkins is one of fewer than 20 schools country-wide to take the Real Food Challenge pledge, which defines the acceptable foods thusly (though not entirely clearly) on its Real Food Challenge pledge agreement:

For the purposes of assessment and tracking, ‘real food’ is defined by a particular set of third-party certifications and other independently verifiable criteria. The Real Food Calculator organizes these criteria into four categories: community-based/local, fair, ecologically sound and humane. Items that fit any one of the four categories and are not otherwise disqualified are counted. Items that fit two or more categories receive special status. For example, produce from an independently owned farm within 250 miles of the institution may be considered “Community-based/local.” A Fair Trade Certified beverage that is also Certified Organic may be considered “Fair” and “Ecologically Sound.”

The basic pledge is for schools to buy 20 percent of their food from contractually-acceptable sources by 2020; according to the Sun, Johns Hopkins is one of a small handful of schools to up the ante -- which is especially noteworthy since the university's president decided on his own to increase that figure to 35 percent:

The university originally agreed that 20 percent of what it serves would be "real food." But at a dinner this month to celebrate the agreement, where students prepared a kale salad and chicken chili from locally sourced ingredients, Hopkins President Ronald J. Daniels "took out his red lawyer pen and crossed out 20 and wrote 35" percent on a copy of the university's pledge, said Jon Berger, an organizer who worked with the students.

"It was so unexpected for us," Raychel Santo, a student organizer, told the paper. "It will definitely present a challenge because we set it so high. It's not going to be easy to do, especially in the winter, but it's still really exciting."

Even before the pledge goes into effect, the university is working to incorporate challenge-meeting foods into its dining halls. For example, eighty percent of its beef is locally-purchased, and all milk comes from two Pennsylvania dairies, per a JHU news release. Students are also provided Baltimore-made hot sauce and pickles, salad greens grown in Baltimore, as well as some 25 varieties of Pennsylvania-grown apples.

"There's a lot of problems in our food system," Raychel Santo said to the Sun. Food "is so connected to everything, it presents a big solution. Maybe if we can fix these problems little by little, maybe we can fix some of the other problems of our society as a whole."

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