Millennials showing the world they can change it

Kevin Barahona

Kevin is an environmental activist who is working to bring more “real” food to his college campus.

Q: How would you describe yourself and the work you do?

A: I’m an immigrant from Costa Rica and I’m committed to sustainability through working to transform the food system in the state of Maryland by getting Towson University to sign the Real Food Challenge commitment.  We have done everything leading up to these final steps before the president signs the commitment and we spent all of last semester getting bills passed in favor of our campaign which say that the governing bodies of Towson University will advise the president to sign this commitment. Now we’re making sure the language of the commitment is agreeable by all parties.

Q: What is the commitment you’re trying to pass, specifically?

A: The Real Food Challenge commitment is a nation-wide campaign led by students where the agreement is to get 20% real food on campus by 2020. “Real food” is considered good for the producer, consumer, community, and the earth; it has to meet at least one, but ideally you want to meet as many as possible. The commitment is 20% real food on Towson’s campus by 2020, and currently we’re at 2%. That means that of all the food that is served on campus, only 2% is considered “real.” That’s mostly low-hanging fruits, which are basically apples when they’re in season.

Q: What are the steps to raising that percentage?

A: First we have to get the president to sign that commitment saying that she will work toward this goal. After she signs the commitment, we will create what is called a food system working group which is a combination of administrators, students, faculty, and dining staff who go through our invoices and order forms and find out where we can make product shifts that are cost-effective. The biggest concern of the administration is that this is going to raise the cost of food which would force us to ask the students if they’re willing to pay more. But if we make smart product shifts, then maybe we don’t have to raise the cost of food. America as a country wastes a lot of food, so Towson University as an institution probably wastes some food as well. If we can find out what food we’re wasting a lot of, then we should just buy less of that or not buy it at all. We should only buy things that will be used and will not be wasted.

When I presented this to the Senate, the example I gave was that if we’re buying $50,000 worth of soy sauce and we don’t use it, then we’re wasting $50,000 worth of soy sauce. Instead of increasing the cost of meal plans for the students, we just need to make smart product shifts and find out where we’re wasting food and then reallocate those funds elsewhere. Instead of $50,000 worth of soy sauce, maybe get $10,000 worth of soy sauce and the other$40,000 will go toward buying local grains or something like that. The food system working groups are in charge of these product shifts and it’s their job to figure out how to go from 2% to at least 20%. Besides creating the food system working group, we’ve created the multi-year action plan with goals that we want to meet by certain dates. Even though the commitment strongly urges the president to work toward these goals, that’s all it does. It just strongly urges her and we can’t actually bind her to a contract with any type of reprimands, so she can’t get in trouble for whatever she’s signing. Whatever we do though, at least we’re making this progress.

The goal is to get to 20% by 2020, but that might be difficult because it’s already 2017 and we still haven’t signed the commitment. Luckily Johns Hopkins University is a leader in the Real Food campaign. They’ve already committed to 35% by 2020 which exceeds the 20% goal. Given that Johns Hopkins is a Baltimore school located near us, we can use them as a resource to figure out how to make these product shifts. We are lucky to have them as allies who we can ask about campaign language, action plans, food systems working group members, and roles we should include in our food systems working group. Because Johns Hopkins is a world-renowned private university, they have more money and their contracts look different than ours. We’re publicly-funded and the state determines how we spend our money, but students do have a say and our campaign uses the power of students as leverage for institutions to make large-scale changes. One example of a smart product shift made by Johns Hopkins involved the fresh orange juice machine in their dining hall. Instead of getting fresh oranges from Florida all the time, they stopped buying oranges and got rid of the machine. Now they buy local ice cream from Taharka Brothers, which is a Baltimore for-profit, for-community ice cream parlor. They don’t have stock holders or investors, but if you work there you have a stake in the business. It empowers the employees financially, who are mostly of lower-class communities in Baltimore city. Taharka Brothers is giving opportunities to people who might not otherwise have them, and then they take the income they receive and reinvest it back into those communities to expand their business and get more people on board. This is an example of a smart product shift that Johns Hopkins made; they didn’t increase the cost of meals for students to make this transition, they just made smart product shifts and that’s what we’re hoping to do here at Towson with the real food system working group.

Q: How did you develop your interest to become involved and invested in this?

A: I’ve always been environmentally motivated and perhaps that is because I was born in Costa Rica. There’s a huge emphasis on biodiverse rainforest conservation there and I feel like that’s embedded in me. When I came to Towson, I wanted to get involved in eco-friendly initiatives and I became a member of the Eco Reps. I didn’t feel like they were setting goals for long-term change or impact, so I was interested when I heard about the Real Food Challenge campaign because it’s for very large-scale and long-term impact. I’m committed to making long-term systemic change and some people don’t understand that food justice is social justice. The current food system we have disproportionally affects marginalized groups of people, mostly minority groups. For example, Baltimore city has a ton of food deserts, meaning there are no grocery stores within a wide radius. In these low-income areas, there are only little corner stores with snacks like chips, milk, and ice cream—nothing really nutritious. This is because grocery stores don’t want to have business there. They don’t want to go into these run-down communities and build grocery stores there because they don’t want to do business there. They’re discriminating against these communities and whether they’re doing it intentionally or not is up for debate.

Q: What do we need to do individually and collectively as a society to reach these goals?

A: One of the best things we can do is to educate ourselves, our friends, and our families. Once you find out about it, you have to tell someone else. Word of mouth is very powerful because once everyone knows about it then everyone can get on board. It’s hard to make large-scale systemic change when people are uneducated about the topic at hand. It’s easier to manipulate your audience when they’re not educated. Education and outreach are very important. If you’re an average Joe and you want to do something about it, that’s one of the best things you can do.

This year I was approved to be a presenter at American University’s annual environmental conference where I presented on behalf of Towson University. I’ve noticed that when I give this presentation to white people—I feel like “white people” isn’t limited to the color of your skin. I feel like people have been using “white” as a synonym for “privilege.” You could be half black and be white because you’re privileged—when I give this presentation to more privileged groups, their reactions are not as strong as when I give it to minority groups. The minority groups get really fired up and passionate. They’re like, “I understand this and I know what you’re talking about. I’m so upset, what can I do about this?” But when I give it to other non-minority groups, they might know a little about it and they might have specific questions, but they were usually not the ones asking how to do something about this and how to get involved. That was mostly the minority groups. This is just in my experience so far and I haven’t given enough presentations to really say that as a fact, but in my experience so far that’s what I’ve encountered.


Q: It probably has to do with the level of direct effect it has on you. If this is happening in communities where you know people and you have family, it affects you more directly than if you don’t have any personal ties to these communities. What do you think are the next steps?

A: As a current 22 year old, I might not have as much influence on business or policy as I’d like, but one thing I can do that’s within my reach is educate the next generation. If the next generation knows better than we did, they can address this problem faster than we can. Calling your congressman is great and all, but it’s usually just left on the voicemail that he doesn’t even listen to. He might have his receptionist or assistant listen to his voicemails for him and tell him what’s important, but that’s about it. Our current political system doesn’t support a lot of these movements. If you’re in a progressive area then these campaigns can take root and grow, but if you’re in a non-progressive area it would be a lot harder because they’re more conservative and they’re not as much for the social welfare of the community. One of the best things we can do is educate the next generation so they can tackle the problems that we couldn’t when we got here.

Q: Do you have a vision of what you want to do next?

A: I want to be a social entrepreneur. I don’t know what the next step is immediately, but I know that obtaining higher education will help me find the path. I’ve applied to the master’s program here at Towson for geography and environmental planning. I have these questions myself because and I don’t feel like I know enough to go do what I want. I want to create large systemic change and I think being a social entrepreneur will help that. For example, Chipotle is now GMO-free, anti-biotic free, and local free-range, but they didn’t wait for policies to implement that change. They didn’t wait for the state or federal government to pass some kind of bill to create these higher standards for food. Because the consumer became educated about what they wanted, Chipotle reacted in that fashion. Consumer demand can make systemic change before the government does and that’s why I think becoming a social entrepreneur is the next step in what I want to do, but until I have more education I don’t feel confident in my ability to make that change happen. You can’t just be good at policy or environmental science, you need a well-rounded skill set. You need to be good at talking to people and you need to understand business, policies, and finance. Unless you understand all of these things that influence society, it’ll be difficult to make a change by yourself. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to make this change by myself, but I feel like I’ll be able to lead a team or direct a group of people to make this happen once I have higher education.

Q: What advice would you give to other activists who are hopeful about their area of passion, but may not know where to start?

A: Never stop learning. Always have a passion for learning. Education is one of the most powerful things in the world. Experts themselves may not have the answer to the question, but by learning more you may one day find the answer. Always being thirsty for knowledge is a very good thing.