Urban Roots satisfies campus demand for ‘real food’
For years, Jamie Clyde and others on the Associated Students staff at Chico State would pass by an unused nook on the ground floor of Bell Memorial Union and ponder, What if.
“I always had my eyeball on it,” said Clyde, assistant executive director of A.S. “It’s a focal spot, a place where you could do something amazing.”
Meanwhile, students have clamored for healthy, sustainable food options. Vegan, vegetarian, locally sourced, fair trade—such labels have become requirements. The CSU system has adopted principles of the Real Food Challenge, which seeks to shift $1 billion of university food budgets toward community-based, eco-friendly sources by 2020.
Thus came Urban Roots.
A.S. decided to devote the space to a convenience store with grab-and-go food items, prepared by A.S. Dining, that fit what students consider to be “real food” or “whole food.” Prepackaged products come from manufacturers that are local and/or committed to sustainability. Fresh salads, sandwiches and wraps contain as many local ingredients as possible.
Urban Roots puts these products in one convenient location—what Harrison calls “centralized sourcing for natural foods that’s both socially responsible and ecologically responsible.”
Urban Roots opened last spring, with a grand opening held May 10 to coincide with Chico State’s 75th anniversary celebration. A.S. will hold another such event Aug. 24.
Scott Harrison, retail manager for A.S. Dining Services, said the goal of Urban Roots is not to make a huge profit. To keep items affordable, margins are thin. Rather, A.S. established the store to meet a need—a demand.
“We all have decisions in our life, especially in a consumer society such as this where we are often voting with our dollars,” Harrison said. “By shopping here, they’re given a daily choice to be the change that they want to see in the world. They can buy their soy milk from a company that will support all the types of social action that they want to see.
“It’s those little choices, every day, that do matter.”
That’s why A.S. chose Urban Roots over, say, a nail salon or frozen yogurt shop.
Clyde and Harrison said Chico State’s store is distinct—only a few other campuses nationwide have green-foods shops. Both follow trends, among colleges and in the food-service industry; menu offerings that once would have been considered niche, such as gluten-free goods, now have become common.
“There’s no such thing as ‘specialty food,’” Clyde said, citing the varieties and brands available for purchase at whole-foods stores such as S&S Produce and New Earth Market.
Moreover, she added, the student-driven Real Food Challenge has been “shifting buying power to smaller companies doing the right thing” in terms of production and charitable outreach. The notion of “food with a purpose”—where a purchase also supports a cause—adds appeal.
The Real Food Challenge dates to 2005, when the Food Project—a Boston-based nonprofit—drew inspiration from a conference presentation on local food and subsequently collaborated with the California Student Sustainability Coalition. The program launched in 2008.
According to its website (www.realfoodchallenge.org), the Real Food Challenge has secured over $60 million in commitments from schools pledging to purchase at least 20 percent of their food from “real food” suppliers—that is, farms and manufacturers not operating on a massive industrial scale. The 23-campus CSU system has not signed onto the agreement, nor has the University of California system, but both follow the principles.
Clyde explained that the effort and expense of program administration dissuaded Chico State from becoming an official participant. Nonetheless, the university uses the Real Food Challenge calculator, an online assessment tool, to measure how close it’s coming to the goal. (Currently, she said, Chico State is around 14 percent.)
Satisfying sensible impulses is one thing; satisfying cravings is another. Urban Roots has no future if it offers only eye candy. Harrison said the store drew “a lot of window shoppers” during its initial weeks but attracted paying customers, too.
A.S. staff members not only researched the pedigree of each supplier, they also performed taste tests.
“We sampled and sampled and sampled and sampled,” he said, laughing. “It was ridiculous. We brought in three or four times more than the amount of stuff that we thought we’d want in the full categories of foods … seeing what we thought would work.”
Some of the products will ring a bell: Mary’s Gone Crackers, Lundberg Family Farms rice chips, Snack Factory pretzel thins. Urban Roots sells potato chips, too, albeit organic.
“[The potato is] fried in a healthy coconut oil so it’s sustainable and healthier,” Harrison said. “Because we do like junk food—it’s legit. We try to do harm reduction as much as possible.”
The store has two avenues of expansion on the horizon.
The first, perhaps by the end of 2017, is adding fresh produce from Chico State’s Organic Vegetable Project. Harrison said A.S. considered selling fresh fruits and vegetables earlier, but the summer slowdown made fall a more sensible time to start.
Clyde said Urban Roots could begin accepting debit cards for CalFresh, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program once known as food stamps. Humboldt State already offers EBT access at its College Creek Marketplace; Chico State has applied.