How University Students are Leading the Charge to Repair our Broken Food Systems: Part 1

Amber Bayly

Today’s post is part of a two-part series by Kirsten Lee and  Katelyn Godin. Kirsten and Katelyn are both graduate students at the University of Waterloo. 


Our 21st century food systems are in strife. An enormous proportion of our food is wasted, while billions of people around the world go hungry. Food swamps are widespread, resulting in people having limited access to healthy, affordable food options in grocery stores and markets. Unsustainable farming practices are common and greatly influence the environment. Food insecurity affects many families, leaving many people with inadequate or insecure access to food due to financial limitations. These systemic issues have dire consequences, including perpetuating social inequities, degradation of the environment, and accelerating the development of obesity and other chronic diseases. If there is a time where reform of our food systems is needed, it’s now.

Fortunately, it’s not all doom and gloom. There are national and global movements underway, in which impassioned individuals are using advocacy, practical interventions, and innovation to remedy some of these faulty systems at the local level. Some of these local efforts are found within our universities, and are often pioneered by students.

Students and faculty at the University of Waterloo have recently launched and sustained two campus food systems-related initiatives: Meatless Monday (MM) and Presidents United to Solve Hunger (PUSH). We chatted with the students that are leading these initiatives to learn more about their organizations’ goals, advocacy work, and why it’s critical to engage students in efforts to improve our food systems. Part 1 of this series focuses on the MM movement at UW, while Part 2 describes UW students’ efforts in PUSH.

Meatless Mondays

MM was formally endorsed by the School of Public Health and Health Systems at University of Waterloo in October 2016, making it the first school of public health in Canada to do so. MM is a global initiative that encourages people to choose plant-based meals, one day each week (not necessarily Mondays, though the idea is that choosing Monday gets you off to a good start of the week!). Since the endorsement, UW students championing MM have organized information sessions on the benefits of reducing meat consumption, partnered with campus sustainability groups and health services, and been actively sharing plant-based recipes on social media. Here’s what they had to say:

Why they are involved in MM

Students had various motivations for being involved with MM, including connecting with like-minded students across campus, engaging in social activism, and helping to support healthy eating and positive practices in their own lives. All of the students indicated that they wanted to increase awareness about the connection between plant-based meals and environmental sustainability.

What they hope to achieve

The students overwhelmingly expressed that they wanted to increase awareness of how and why individuals should adopt more plant-based meals, as well as support students who are already striving to incorporate more plant-based meals in their diets. Future MM events and activities to facilitate this include developing a student/budget friendly cookbook, nutrition education campaigns, and cooking workshops. The students also indicated wanting other faculties and food services to adopt MM, making it a campus-wide initiative.

Why universities should consider supporting plant-based meals a priority

The students highlighted that University of Waterloo is an ideal setting for MM, given its reputation as an innovative university that aims to address the important social and environmental challenges of today. They indicated that universities hold a lot of power (e.g., control over food vendor’s options, influencing social norms related to food, etc.), and therefore have a responsibility to provide food options to reflect students’ needs and values and demonstrate social responsibility.

How supporting plant-based meals can improve our food systems

The students agreed that individual action to reduce their meat intake can initiate larger system-level changes (e.g., reducing practices relating to raising livestock and meat production) that have important implications on increasing waste reduction and sustainability. These outcomes undoubtedly have a positive influence on our food systems.

Challenges with MM advocacy work

Key challenges included using positive framing to describe the importance of plant-based meals and engaging meat-eaters in the initiative without making them feel criticized or intimidated. Many students also described resistance from the university and a reluctance to change as major challenges in their MM advocacy work.

Like MM, PUSH has recently been making waves on UW campus. Check out Part 2 of this series to learn about how this student-led initiative is challenging university leaders and administration to take concrete action against hunger and malnutrition.

Allana

I have a PhD in population health from the University of Ottawa looking at why children are sedentary, the difference between types of sedentary behaviour (as you’d expect screen time is much worse than reading a book!) and what we can do about it in Canada, and around the world. I completed my master’s at Queen’s University in kinesiology and epidemiology, and graduated from Acadia University with a double major in biology and kinesiology. I am also a Certified Exercise Physiologist with the Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology, a Clinical Exercise Specialist with the American College of Sports Medicine and a Physical Activity in Public Health Specialist with the American College of Sports Medicine/National Physical Activity Society. I love to be active, especially when I get to be outside and especially when I get to explore a new city!