Student summit showcases sustainable solutions

By Charlene Evelyn
August 15, 2013

University of Northern B.C. students have front-row seats to campus food policy innovation.

This weekend, two student co-ordinators with the school's Campus Food Strategy Group are in Toronto to meet with other like-minded post-secondary food champions at the 10th annual National Student Food Summit.

Organized by Meal Exchange, the three-day event at the University of Toronto will highlight the student work being done on campuses across the country in the area of sustainable food systems. Meal Exchange is a registered charity focusing on mobilizing young people to work in their communities to alleviate hunger and achieve food security.

"Summit sessions provide students with the opportunity to engage in high-level discussion with leaders of the food movement in Canada, while providing them with skills and resources needed to improve food issues directly on their campus," said Greg Sam, education manager at Meal Exchange. "Sessions this year will focus on campus food systems, on-campus food provider contracts, fundraising, and student engagement methods, amongst other topics."

Nitha Karanja is going into her final year in environmental planning at UNBC and was one of the people who kick-started UNBC's involvement the nine-campus Campus Food Systems pilot project Meal Exchange and Sierra Youth Coalition launched in 2011.

This will be Karanja's third trip to Ontario on food-related business. The first, three years ago, was to help craft the National Student Food Charter - a set of values and principles created to guide food policy development.

She also attended last year's summit with Connell to talk about issues with learning about food. This year she is presenting in a session called How to Win Allies and Influence Stakeholders.

"I'll be able to speak to the successes that we've had at UNBC," said Karanja. "Especially because we are a northern institution, so we we have specific challenges that you wouldn't have in the Lower Mainland, for example."

One of those issues is the idea that the popular 100-mile diet isn't practical for the city, "unless we're all going to eat rutabagas and beef for eight months of the year," Karanja added.

"So our idea of food sustainability is a little bit different. I think that's why we're in such a unique position to be innovators in this field - we understand what northern sustainability means and to be leaders in that conversation."

Her interest was piqued after taking an environmental-planning course taught by David Connell in food systems planning.

"We became increasingly interested in understanding how our university could contribute to a healthy, viable food system in the North," Karanja said.

Along with her fellow strategy group leaders, Cameron Bell and graduate student Mike Dewar, Karanja has facilitated ongoing discussions and engagement projects with UNBC students, faculty and staff to address challenges and obstacles related to having a more sustainable food policy at the university.

This includes working to influence the higher ups to make sustainable and responsible food an action as opposed to a dream.

"So we've worked with our administrators, including our ancillary services director, to put together a [request for proposal] that we feel is socially and environmentally responsible so that the next food service provider at UNBC will be obligated to meet certain goals around environmental sustainability," said Karanja.

This includes getting local food on the menu and casting a critical eye to foods produced in places where farmers' rights aren't being met.

The group has also been making headway with their fellow students, finding support from campus organizations such as the University Farmers' Market and Students for a Green University.

"I feel that, even more now than two years ago when we started, students are really interested in this work and they want to see a higher quality of service around food," Karanja said. "Even if that means just having more diversity of food on campus."