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What Are College Students Saying About Their Food?

Four students from The George Washington University share their views on food, sustainability, and choice.
Millennials in the Lunch Line. Photo: ZimmComm – New Media, LLC
Photo: ZimmComm – New Media, LLC

Students from The George Washington University provide a true Millennial view of food, economics, environment, and sustainability. Each of the students has a connection to food systems and connecting to people producing food. Their opinions and insights offer ideas on what others should tackle or take on when developing products or services.

Below is a transcript from the audio of the panel conversation - College Cafeteria Confidential: Millennials in the Lunch Line [audio].

College Cafeteria Confidential: Millennials in the Lunch Line - Panel:

  • Jesse Schaffer, Senior, The George Washington University;
  • Miles Milliken, Senior, The George Washington University;
  • Eric Estroff, Sophomore, The George Washington University;
  • Jennifer Weinberg, Freshman, The George Washington University;
  • Moderated by Rob Morasco, Senior Director of Offer Development, Sodexo USA.

From the Animal Agriculture Alliance Stakeholder Summit Titled Cracking the Millennial Code Stakeholder Summit, May 8 - 9, 2014, Crystal City, VA, USA.

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Moderator, Rob Morasco, Senior Director of Offer Development, Sodexo USA: I am going to introduce our panel if I can find their intros. All right. Who do I got first?

I got Jesse first. Jesse Schaffer, raise your hand, Jesse, so they know who you are.

Jesse is a senior graduating, says in May, but I guess that's now, as in next week, with the major of Internal Affairs, with an Environmental studies concentration, and a minor in Sustainability.

While in college in DC, he discovered his passion for agriculture as a expression of his values for food justice in sustainability. During the time, he built an educational farm in Michigan, a community garden in DC, and took leadership roles in the DC food system as the President of the Food Justice Alliance.

After graduation, Jesse will be moving to Long Island to work as a farm apprentice; and begin his career in sustainable agriculture. Thanks, Jesse.

Next, we've got the Miles Milliken, originally from Seattle, Washington. Miles has been at the George Washington University for four years studying Environmental Studies and Sustainability.

In high school, he developed a passion for hyper local agriculture. During his time at GW, he's had a major role in his campus garden, the food from which goes to a local homeless shelter.

His goal is to reduce the impact this food has on the environment and to help others understand the multi-faceted nature of the food industry. Excellent and welcome.

Next, we've got Jennifer Weinberg. Jennifer is a freshman at GW studying political science and law and society. Originally from Bridgewater, New Jersey and living on a beef farm. Jennifer enjoys spending a lot of her time showing cattle competitively all over the East Coast.

Growing up in New Jersey has not stopped Jennifer from developing and becoming driven to follow her agricultural roots. Jennifer is the upcoming secretary of GW's Phi Alpha Delta fraternity, which is a professional co-ed fraternity made up of active GW students with an interest in law and potentially pursuing a law degree.

Jennifer also has begun to expand her political experience through her spring internship at the Federalist Society and looks to continue her legal experience at the Institute for Justice this summer. Welcome, Jennifer.

Last, but not least, we've got Eric Estroff. Eric is a sophomore at GW from Atlanta, Georgia, majoring in political communication and organizational science.

He previously worked for the US Fish and Wildlife Service, US Department of the Interior and served as a national program coordinator for the Green Schools Alliance -- the largest K12 organization of Green Schools in the world. He currently serves on the Student Dining Board at the George Washington University.

Eric was the youngest recipient of the Captain Planet Super Hero for Earth Award given by the Captain Planet and Turner Foundations in 2011. His fellow award recipients that year included Dr. Sylvia Earle, TV personality Jeff Corwin, and President Jimmy Carter.

He also received the Joseph A. Piehuta Prize from the National Conservation Training Center for his work with the Student Climate and Conservation Congress. Welcome, panel.

Let me see if I can find our questions. I've got some questions that I'm going to ask the panel and we agreed you all are going to take turns at this and maybe everybody gets a crack at it; for sure, the first one.

Trust me, they're going to hold up a big sign in the back and tell me it's time for the audience to ask questions. We're going to make sure we get to that.

We'll, I guess, start with you, Jesse, since you're first up there. This will go to each of the panelists. Could you tell us a little about where your passion for food comes from and your food -- I'll call it point-of-view? Where does that come from?

Jesse Schaffer: Can you hear me?

Rob Morasco, Moderator: You might have to pull the mic a little closer.

Jesse Schaffer: Is that all right? I've been living in DC now for four years. When I got here, one of the things that I noticed was the unequal distribution and unequal access.

There were a lot of people who couldn't afford to get the healthy produce that everyone deserves. It's a human right.

The realization was that we needed to increase access, and we needed to make sure that distribution and the opportunity to get healthy food was universal. That was what called me to build this community garden in Washington DC and also build a farm in Michigan that served to a low income Farmers Market.

It was an opportunity to increase access by growing the food myself because I think that one of the best ways to do it is to change that food system yourself and participate directly.

Miles Milliken: I grew up as vegetarian. My father does the sourcing for a small vegetarian restaurant in Seattle. I grew up with that as the basis and in my teenage years, grew into eating meat, which I enjoy. [laughs]

Thank you all for help with that.


[applause 04:40]

Miles Milliken: However, about 10 years ago, my grandfather had a quadruple bypass surgery after a massive heart attack. He clearly knows some of the source and cause of that heart attack.

When he was child growing up in Oklahoma, they would fill up a barrel with salt and layer that in with pork and other meat products to hold over the winter. This was in the '30s in cold Oklahoma.

He would sneak out and pull out a salted piece of pork and nosh on that as a young child not understanding the health consequences that would arise later in his life. What I've seen and what I've learned is that there are problems with the food system including the meat industry. However, what I see today is that you all are some of the solutions and can be the solutions to some of those problems that have arisen with obesity and problems like that and environmental problems, which is really what I'm passionate about.

As my bio says, I started off doing agriculture in Seattle, doing edible landscaping in the city of Seattle, bringing food crops to individual home owners so they can have a garden right outside their kitchen window and have the access for everybody of local organic produce right there outside your front door.

Jennifer Weinberg: Good morning, everyone. Very honored to be here and thank you very much, Rob, for the wonderful introduction.

As was mentioned before, my relationship and my passion for agricultural and food is probably very different then my follow peers here on this panel.

Being from New Jersey, I was actually born and raised on a beef farm where we've raised both feed law and show quality cattle.

Over the years, we've transitioned as I grew older and became interested in 4-H and showing cattle competitively away from feeding cattle out for a feed lack perspective.

Also, transitioning into show quality cattle where we've raised both local county, state, and regional champions.

I'm very well versed in the beef industry. I've had a lot of experienced out west. Visiting feed lots and also show quality farms out west in Iowa and Indiana even far out west as Wyoming.

My passion for agriculture comes from my understanding of the beef industry. A lot of what goes on with our both small county, local farmers, and also farmers that serve larger corporations.

Eric Estroff: Hey, all. I'm the last Millennial. I guess it's like a fish bowl up here.

My passion for agricultural, I guess, stem from the fact that I did advocacy for about 2,000 high schools worldwide when I was in high school.

Food is a topic that relates to every single person in the country and going to GW, which is a city school that's been very interesting at that time; in the fact, that we have over a 150 restaurants that are on our meal plan. We'll probably get to that later.

Our meal plan is very interesting in a sense that we have a lot of choice and variety. We also have our Sodexo supervise our typical campus dinning. Because of that, as a student, we have a lot of choice. When we talked about price earlier, I'm sure that's something that we will get to later. It's definitely something that effects us every day. I'm excited to talk about it.

Rob Morasco, Moderator: Thank you every body for the introductions. I'm going to start, Miles, the second question with you. If anyone of you want to chime in on that, please feel free. If you don't, that's OK. We'll go to the next question.

Miles, the second question is to you. What are the changes that you are asking from Sodexo and GW in terms of dining options, and why are they important to you?

Miles Milliken: I've been involved in food and sustainability projects at GW for four years. Part of that is recruiting new students at our summer orientation program and running a program about broad sustainability.

During the past two years when I've been doing that, I've seen a consistent up check and increase in the students who coming to GW wanting to know about sustainability.

I've helped Jessie with the our campus garden. This spring we have also seen a major, major increase in people who have come out to experience our produce garden out there on campus.

All of that has really shown me that students, my peers, my generation, we want to know about our food, we want to know where it comes from, we want to be involved when we can.

I worked a little bit this spring with a Real Food Challenge effort at GW who's very happy for the experience to learn how that works in sort of the back end of some of the food systems at GW.

We got a lot of student involvement in that which was key to getting it done. Also, a variety of leadership within GW allotted it positive to get us better food, to get us to that 20 percent of real food by 2020. It's very positive in my perspective.

Rob Morasco, Moderator: Does anybody else want to chime in on that question?

Jennifer Weinberg: Sure.

Rob Morasco, Moderator: Looks like it.

Jennifer Weinberg: In only my first year in GW, I've noticed that Sodexo attempts and does a good job of trying to explain what their program is trying to do. For example, when I went to go buy my breakfast sandwich this morning, there was a sign that said, "We're serving only cage-free eggs."

Initially, I think for someone who doesn't come from an agricultural background. You think, "Cage-free eggs. Oh! That's really nice."

For me, what I kind of wonder, coming from an agricultural background, is I want to know what does cage-free exactly mean? I know that obviously you can make your own assumptions cage-free is obviously chickens and hens that haven't been raised in a cage.

However, I am tempted to think that cage-free runs along the line of something like grass-fed beef, where that there's not one uniform definition that describes it all. I know that there's a lot of different, I guess, definitions of what cage-free or grass-fed could mean.

For me, personally, if there's this drive for students and everyone to really understand where their food is coming from, I'd like to see it defined a bit more.

Rob Morasco, Moderator: One more? One more chime in?

Jesse Schaffer: Yes, I think this is a really good question. Speaking about specific changes that we've been looking for to work on with Sodexo, we've specifically been working on the Real Food Challenge. This campaign has been going on now for a year and a half.

We've recently signed on as The George Washington University, but one of the largest private universities in the country to sign on to the Real Food Challenge with Sodexo.

We're really happy about that. That was something that we had been working on for a very long time. I think something else that we've been working on a lot is transparency. We think that's really important. That, as college students in higher education knowing about where our food comes from and being educated about that, is very important to us.

That's something that we want to change, and we want to increase the transparency. When we talk about local food, we want to know how much is actually local. When we calculate that and we find out that maybe there's only four percent in their dining halls that's actually local, we'd like to know that.

We'd like to know the information so that we can expand knowledge for students and create an open dialogue about that sort of stuff.

Rob Morasco, Moderator: That's great, thank you. Jennifer, I'm going to start with you on this one if that's OK. Try to go in order here. I think this is an important one for the audience.

Do you think your views, as a panel on this, are representative of the Millennials, not only at GW, but nationwide? Do you think you're more or less passionate about the topic than, I'll say, the average college student?

Jennifer Weinberg: Some trends that I've noticed from both GW as a university and other universities as well is that there's what I like to call three different trends of concern about food. The first concern, I find is that there is a growing number of students who are looking into where their food is actually produced and have a concern for it.

Then there's the second part which I find there's people that really are not concerned at all and really have no…they say, "I'm hungry. I want a breakfast sandwich. I'm going to go buy one." Then I feel that the third sect is really people that do not have the concern until they're told to have it.

For example, I've found that a lot of people that I've talked to come into GW without a concern about where there food is coming from. To them, food is food, "I need to buy it, and then I need to go study for that exam."

However, there has been a lot of recent and growing increasing concern in the media, at school in general, around the country, around the world about where our food is coming from with media and videos such as Food, Inc. -- being one of the major ones.

There is that rising concern that I think is starting to grow into young people because it does affect them both from an economic perspective, but also from a moral perspective as well.

Eric Estroff: You, guys, aren't involved, I guess, in the education section of the country; but just so you know, sustainability right now is probably… [inaudible 14:21] added the minor three years ago. It's definitely the hottest minor at our school right now.

In the sense that someone mentioned earlier that we are more educated on where our food is being produced, how it's being produced and so, I think, "Are we reflective of the country?"

In a sense, GW has representation from 140 countries and all 50 states. In the nation's capital, you attract the brightest and the best. It's been very interesting coming from Atlanta, Georgia.

We have a farm out in Mississippi and so bringing a rural perspective in some sense to kids who are coming straight from Manhattan where they have access to anything they want at all times.

We have a very unique campus in that sense. I definitely think from an environmental studies perspective that is the hottest major on our campus right now. Over the past two years, there are some 250 students who have declared a Sustainability minor. In that sense, people want to know the information.

The earlier question you asked, "What are we asking for Sodexo? What are we asking, and specifically our dining hall on campus?" Nutritional information.

To Michelle Obama and her whole campaign that's going on, and I have an uncle who owns a restaurant, he's furious about it because when he goes to produce a hamburger or something, he can't give all the nutritional information about every single thing that he's putting into the substance that he's making.

On a college campus, when we have so many options shopping around, our campus is only four blocks, by four blocks; but there's 50 restaurants and then an additional 100 off campus.

People want to see that nutritional label with percentage of fat, all those different types of things, caloric intake. That's definitely something important that people are demanding that on the salad bar. Sodexo has to provide a list of the ingredients going into even a simple salad.

Rob Morasco, Moderator: Thanks, Eric. I got the notification. It's time for questions from the audience. Do we have our folks with microphones? There we go. All right. I think I've got one right up front here, please. Time flies when you're having fun.

Audience Member: I really have two, just a quick one, by way of background, Rob, for you. I don't think you mentioned it, or else I didn't get it. How many meals are you serving per day at George Washington?

Rob Morasco, Moderator: At George Mason?

Audience Member: Yeah, George Washington.

Rob Morasco, Moderator: George Washington?

Rob Morasco, Moderator: I have our General Manager here. About 4,500 meals a day. [laughs]

Audience Member: What percentage of your student diners are vegetarian, would you say?

Rob Morasco, Moderator: Six percent.

Audience Member: Thank you. The question for the panel -- how would you define sustainability?

Rob Morasco, Moderator: Who wants to take a crack at that one? [laughs] I knew you were going to! I just knew it.

Jesse Schaffer: Thanks for that question. It's a really good question because right now, it's been green washed. It's been watered down to the point that for a lot of students sustainability doesn't mean anything anymore.

I think that understanding sustainability means looking at it from a lot of different perspectives and making sure that it's a wholistic look. For example, if your workers who are the food service providers who are actually serving and cooking the food for people, if their salary isn't high enough for them to feed their own family healthy food, that's not sustainable, for example, right?

That's not a just system, that's not a sustainable system. What sustainability is something that makes sure that it nourishes the community and nourishes the earth. It's responsible and holistic, and can look forward to the long term and respects the needs of the planters, the pickers, the packers, the drivers, the cookers, the people who clean up, every person and every part of that process making sure that they're all respected.

That process is what sustainability really looks like.

Miles Milliken: Add on to that a little bit. It's a very broad term, and I don't think we need to focus on hitting everything and actually defining it. As far as your industries, you all know what you do and how you do that. The best thing for you all to do would be to market that.

Find out what aspects of that are sustainable, what are environmentally friendly, what is humane, and then talk about how you raise your cattle or how you…What does a cage-free egg mean? Define that and that will answer the question for us.

We don't need a huge, broad definition of sustainability. Pick a few things that you and your industry does that are sustainable and make sure you research them, and we'd be happy to answer that afterwards as well and go into more depth. Figure out what those few things are and start marketing those to us, and we will respond to that.

Rob Morasco, Moderator: We've got one in the back there.

Audience Member: I think this question is more for Rob. Rob, obviously, George Washington is a large, private university. How representative of this is… Sodexo works across many campuses, probably a lot of public university. How representative are these students as opposed to others that might not come from such a background or that level of university?

Rob Morasco, Moderator: It's funny. I'll pick on Mason that's right down the street. It's not that different. I would say Mason's maybe a month behind [laughs] on some specific tasks and goals that they're after. It used to be the coasts were where we saw local and sustainability and all that, the talking and the issue. I can't give you one site where it hasn't come up, and we haven't had the conversation.

From my perspective, these great panelists are very, very representative about what's going on around the country.

In the middle here? We'll get you next [laughs] .

Audience Member: Hi, one thing that I hear a lot in the work that I do, and I really don't think it's a productive way to start a conversation, is that so many people are removed from the farm. They don't understand how farms work, how animals are raised. Obviously, Jennifer, you're more of the rarity versus the norm.

Again, I don't think it's a productive way to have a conversation; but it's something that is just used to avoid having the real conversation. How do you, guys, respond to that from your different perspectives?

Eric Estroff: We have a class at G-dub. It's called World on a Plate. It's taught by José Andrés, who's one of the world famous chefs. One of the things we did in the class is we all had individual projects, and one of the groups went out and had to prepare a chicken dish. Which means they went out to Virginia, got a chicken, broke the chicken's neck, killed the chicken.

I'm telling you, I was horrified when I watched this video. [laughs] I had…It's like an out-of-sight, out-of-mind type of thing for me. It was very interesting having this out-of-body experience, watching how actually produce our food.

One of the things that was the list of questions we had beforehand was how do get the message to someone like me? To be completely honest, and maybe this is the key to your success, Facebook and BuzzFeed.

There was a company, McDonald's, who did a couple videos on where their food was produced. They had this beautiful cinematography, nice background music, 30 seconds long of. This is where their cabbage comes from.

From someone my generation, we have an attention span like this. I'm actually a film studies major as well; and when we're looking at videos, you have two minutes to have someone's attention span.

The best way that can get your message out is if you go onto Facebook. You have these BuzzFeed articles that say, "This is how Tyson," for example, "is producing their chickens." She mentioned, "This is how we're raising our cattle."

If you have sustainable practices, do some funny photos, put it on a BuzzFeed article, something like that, that we have literally a 15 second attention span, unfortunately. If you do it in a creative way and put it online or create a video highlighting your best practices, that's something that would be awesome.

When I'm scrolling on my… I want to know where my chicken's coming from. I don't normally have the time to research it. If you do it in a creative way where I'm scrolling through and the majority of where I get my information from is online, that would be an awesome thing.

Vice President Biden just did an Instagram account. That was pretty cool. Now everyone has up-to-date on what he's doing throughout the day. It's these new social media technologies that Sodexo actually is employing on our campus. When people have a problem with their food, they tweet @Sodexo. Then they get the problem solved within 30 seconds.

Rob Morasco, Moderator: I think we've got time for one more, and you had your hand up up here.

Audience Member: I guess I was curious to ask the panel about the term "real food." I see Sodexo's terminology and some of you it seems like you worked on that with Sodexo. I'm curious as to why local is highlighted versus processed.

Because when I think of real food, I'm thinking of low sodium. I'm thinking of something that's healthy in the sense that it was prepared for me, and I know that it's hot and fresh versus local. I'd rather have it be, let's say, healthy than local.

Jesse Schaffer: That's a great question. That was a big part of this process over a year and a half of trying to figure out what real food was, and how we go about getting that into our cafeterias. Was a big question.

The reason local was such a consideration as well as humane and ecologically sound was because we feel that real food needs to reflect the externalities that are not reflected in the cost, for example.

When you're paying for a meal, you're not paying for the runoff that's going into the Chesapeake Bay. That's not accounted for in the costs. That environmental cost is not accounted for. When you create a local food system, a lot of these negative externalities are not there. They're not part of that cost.

A big thing is prioritizing justice in your food. Local, it's an opportunity to do that. It takes out a lot of the things that would make your food, in many senses of the word, unjust. I think the consideration was making sure that the food system reflected the values of the university students.

Jennifer Weinberg: When the term "real food" is used, I'd honestly prefer not to use that term at all because I'd personally rather use the "best food" instead of the "real food." The reason I say this is I think it connects to all the questions that have been asked so far on this panel.

What does "sustainability" mean? What does "real food" mean? If you were to frame how we're discussing food differently under the "best food", we'd get a combination that, at least in my mind, suits everything. For me, I would have liked to have been able to jump in on the sustainability question. I'll do so now. Sustainability…


Jennifer Weinberg: Well, it's part of the "real food" or "best food" idea that I'm proposing. In terms of sustainability, it's not simply a bunch of criteria that fits under sustainable because it's X, Y, and Z.

Sustainability to me, and what's really important, it doesn't matter if it's local or processed. sustainability needs to be a balance between having a consciousness of resources but at the end of the day, getting the job done. Getting the job done here in America revolves around high demand.

Like I like to say, I don't really think that there is a town, a city, a state at all, where if you wanted a hamburger or you wanted a piece of chicken, you couldn't find one. I know that to be true because that's America.

Therefore, if we were to frame food under being the best food and were just to take into consideration minding our resources but yet again getting the job done, we'd be a little bit more successful in this conversation.

Rob Morasco, Moderator: Unfortunately we're out of time. Fortunately, three of our panelists are going to stay with us for lunch. There's certainly opportunity for some one-on-one conversations. I want to thank them. They did a fantastic job, and thank you all for the time.

[applause 26:33]


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