Organic Food Inequity on University Campuses

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The demand for healthy food has become ever increasing on college campuses due to student’s focus on sustainability and the desire for improved health following a limited exposure to healthy foods after an upbringing of favorable eating habits. As college students undertake the responsibility of making their own food choices, the most common and pushed for program offered by universities is a meal plan.

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However, universities like the University of Arizona, that offer food from a variety of small restaurant options instead of the traditional cafeteria environment, lack in providing wholesome plant based meal options for its students. In addition to analyzing barriers to organic food supply in a cafeteria setting such as the one described above, this paper will propose long term solutions that can be adapted into the system in place. The study will focus on The University of Arizona and area surrounding Tucson, AZ where a sustainability initiative has propelled the university to identify and rectify unsustainable practices.


The concepts of organic farming were first developed in the early 1900s yet demand for organic food did not increase until the 1960s when Rachel Carson brought attention to the fact that extensive use of insecticides resulted in negative impacts on the environment and human health. Through public demand, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) later added the National Organic Program (NOP) to regulate organic production. Consumers have various reasons for buying organic food, but due to decreasing environmental conditions and a worldwide focus on holistic sustainability measures, sustainable agriculture included, organic food is being demanded more than ever before.

Addressing sustainability with a focus on agriculture is the next step for the University of Arizona. It is essential that permanent food options and long- lasting partnerships with farms practicing sustainable operations are established and maintained. Sustainable agriculture focuses on the use of techniques that create permanence. This means that soil fertility is maintained by the crops chosen, that renewable resources are given preference, that pollution is minimized if not eliminated, and that biological balance is cultivated (Balfour).

Organic Food Trends and Perceptions

  • Consumers often express that choice of eating organic food is a result of health reasons, food safety, environmental concerns, taste and nutrition, or a combination of some or all those reasons, yet in practice, there are other factors that alter a consumer’s buying behavior.
    Some trends that illustrate attitudes toward organic food include:
  • A consumer’s intention to buy organic foods is best predicted by egoistic motives, not altruistic motives (Magnusson et al, 2003). If the consumer already knows that organic food is overall beneficial, but identifies a personal benefit such as improved health, then they are more likely to go out of their way to regularly consume organic products.
  • There is a direct link between age and consumer preference. The younger the person, the increased the likelihood of them displaying a positive attitude towards organic foods (Magnusson et al, 2003). This is important because institutions like universities serve the post-millennial generation.
  • Accessibility hinders an individual’s ability to purchase according to their purchase criterion (Grankvist and Biel, 2001). In other words, an individual may feel very strongly about the environment and wish to support organic farms, but not be able to do so in practice. The reason is unclear if it is the presence of strong habits that overcome purchasing criterion.
  • Studies have found that the belief that organic food products are viewed as expensive and therefore not purchased regularly is false. The correlation between income and organic food consumption is not very strong at all. Organic food consumption did increase, but only until income reached about A$35,000 per annum (Lockie et al, 2002). Lockie then goes to say that a third of low-income consumers, those earning less than $20,000 a year, still purchased organic foods due to interest in consuming them (Lockie et al, 2002).
  • As formal education level increase so does organic food consumption. This is a result of a deeper understanding of food composition. For example, when consumers understand genetically engineered foods, they are more likely to refuse to buy them (Lockie et al, 2002).

University students demonstrate a slight deviance from these trends due to situational conditions regarding cost and accessibility. For example, about half of students surveyed at Brescia University College were on some form of financial aid. Another 52 percent indicated living on campus and having a university meal plan (Hamilton and Sharareh, 2018). Students who have a limited income or whose food choice is limited are at a massive disadvantage especially because it is also noted that students in every area of study are knowledgeable in organic food and would be willing to pay the increased cost of eating organically if barriers to their eating behavior were not present (Hamilton and Sharareh, 2018). Another study concluded that university students primarily base their food- purchasing behavior on taste, followed by value for money, convenience, then cost (Tam et al, 2017). Respondents were then asked to recommend improvements to the campus food environment. The most popular suggestions were that the university provide healthier food for a lower cost and more freshly cooked/prepared foods (Tam et al, 2017). This reinforces the fact that people between the ages of 18 to 24 see the value of eating more healthy and balanced meals.

Food has a continuous context in societies, and at the heart of the issue is a consumer’s ethics and values. Buying behavior is all subjective, but trends can be analyzed to get a deeper understanding of how the food system should respond to the fact that more consumers wish to consume organic food products than ever before.

Current Standing, Tucson, AZ

The city of Tucson has struggled with increasing poverty and food insecurity for several years. Pima county had a poverty rate of 18.70 % in 2015 (See Fig.1). In addition, 19.20 % of households were recorded to be food insecure in 2013-2015 (See Fig.2). Of the population residing in Pima county 218,481 individuals had low access to a store in 2015. This is a 5.91% drop from 2010 (See Fig.3). In the year 2016, there is record of 27 farmers markets operating in the Pima county area. The composition of sold products is unknown (See Fig.4).Current Standing, The University of Arizona.

The University of Arizona is considered a food desert. This means that access to affordable and fresh food is a major barrier to college students. There are a few programs available for students that help alleviate the problem.

Programs Available to University of Arizona Students

There are options available to University of Arizona students that aid in alleviating food insecurity and providing a healthy food option.

Nrich Urban Market

Nrich Urban Market has fresh juices, nut butters, produce and healthy products that are nutritious. All the products and foods are dietitian- approved. Nrich facilitates healthy snack options for students, as well as offers cooking classes that teach students how to eat healthy at home.

UA Campus Pantry

The UA campus pantry is open two days a week. Students simply need to show up with their CatCards and are able to grab four items of their choice at no cost to the student. Fresh produce may also be available as campus pantry is partnered with UA community garden. This provides students with the peace of mind that for two days out of the week they can count on having food, without the stress of cost.

Market on the Move

Food For All, a committee within Students for Sustainability (SFS) which leads sustainable policy efforts on campus, focuses on fighting food insecurity on campus and the surrounding Tucson area. Food For All is responsible for bringing Market on the Move, a 3,000 Club program, to the University of Arizona’s farmers market. Market on the Move sells 60 lbs. of fresh produce for $10. They have agreed to work with the university in order to provide students with a cheap resource.

The University of Arizona lacks whole food options, currently has no focus on providing organic food to students, and zero initiatives to establish a year-round site where students can obtain fresh groceries at a reasonable price.

Working with the System in Place

A Case Study, University of California Berkeley

There are many universities that have expanded their food options for students, serving only fresh, local, and native food and food products. UC Berkeley has notable programs in place that focus on sustainable food, waste reduction, and gardens. The main focus of their cafeteria service is on plant- forward cooking.

UC Berkeley uses ingredients that are sustainably sourced and communicates to consumers that the food served follows guidelines that promote:

  1. Transparency
  2. Freshness and Seasonality
  3. Small portions of meat
  4. And Whole Foods

These principles have resulted in garden-to-table partnerships, place- based produce sourcing, and sustainably and ethically sourced animal products (CalDining).

In 2006, UC Berkeley was the first to have a certification by California Certified Organic Farmers, making their salad bar the first organic- certified salad bar in the United States (Krupnick). The salad bar is located in some residential dining halls, providing a 100% organic food option for students on meal plans, as well as those paying meal to meal.

UC Berkeley is taking steps to make organic food a primary option for its students.

AASHE Stars Program

Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System (STARS) is a program of aashe that measures the sustainability performance of universities (). The most recent year The University of Arizona reported information was in 2017. This data will be analyzed to identify where improvements can be made.

Sustainable Dining category. Score: 1.75 out of the 2.00 points

The University of Arizona did not receive points for the following categories:

  • Published sustainable dining policy
  • Host low impact dining events
  • Provide sustainability- themed meals
  • Inform customers about low-impact food choices through signage
  • Provide reusable or compostable containers and service ware for to go meals
  • Other materials management initiatives to minimize waste

Food and Beverage Purchasing. Score: 0.00 out of 6.00 points

The University of Arizona did not receive points for the following categories:

  • Local and community based or 3rd party verification
  • Dining services minimize purchase of conventional animal products

Strategies for Improvement

UC Berkeley earned more points in both categories than the U of A. By observing what policies and practices Berkeley has implemented, successfully reducing food inequity resulting from use of organic food, policies can be proposed as to what the university of Arizona can do to increase the use of organic food while maintaining price low for students.

Strategy 1: Propose a Vegan Dining Program

Add an additional window to businesses like Cactus Grill, offering solely vegan and vegetarian options. Include 100 % organic products.

Main Goal:

  • Provide students with an option for them to use their meal plan on meals that are healthy. Students want to eat foods that are nutrient rich. This will eliminate one of the barriers students face and increasing organic food consumption.

Strategy 2: Work with already established platforms to prioritize organic food sourcing

By restructuring the contracts the university has with businesses, such as Core, Nrich Urban Market, and others, it will be able to smoothly transition into an all organically sourced student union.

Main Goal:

  • Ascertain that the food being served at the University of Arizona is of the highest nutritional value by using organic ingredients.
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Organic Food Inequity on University Campuses. (2019, Jul 30). Retrieved January 29, 2023 , from

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