Illustration by Matt Boblet.

When people think of college dining halls, they usually don’t think of tasty, refreshing and original meals — but Mike Kraus does.

UC Santa Cruz senior food service manager Kraus has dedicated himself to bringing tasty and nutritious food options to campus, and it hasn’t gone unnoticed. In fact, his work has been acknowledged by a nomination in the first annual Real Food Awards.

“It’s definitely a proud moment,” Kraus said. “I think I do a lot of creative things with the menu here, and it’s exciting to get some recognition as far as what we do here at the dining hall on a day-to-day basis.”

The Real Food Awards, sponsored by the Real Food Challenge organization, recognize people who bring “real food” — defined by the organization as “food which truly nourishes producers, consumers, communities and the earth” — to university and college campuses.

“For me, it’s all about tying the community into what we are doing with dining services at UCSC and taking advantage of the abundant seasonal produce here in California, and Santa Cruz in particular,” Kraus said.

Described as a “lifelong foodie,” Kraus has been acknowledged for making a variety of creative and healthy “real food” options available on campus. Kraus has been involved in bringing to campus unique dining initiatives and options, such as Meatless Mondays, fruited quinoa, black bean burgers, sun-dried polenta and numerous gluten-free items.

“I like surprising people and challenging what they’re expecting, and giving them new dining options, what they don’t expect at a dining hall,” Kraus said.

The Real Food Awards has five categories: Students, Faculty, Food Service Managers, Cafeteria “Worker-Leaders,” and Food Producers. Kraus is a finalist in the Food Service Managers category.

The finalists are defined by the Real Food Challenge as those who “have demonstrated dedication to excellence in college food, whether through improving working conditions, obtaining real food in dining halls, or growing sustainable and nourishing food on community farms.”

“The people nominated are exceptional and really inspire people,” said Nina Mukherji, Real Food Challenge director of programs. Mukherji said the nominees have been recognized for making “really concrete change” and “developing leadership.”

“Mike Kraus has all these [qualities] to a high degree,” Mukherji said.

The candidates in each of the categories were nominated by students, and of the 100 nominations, the Real Food Challenge team narrowed the candidates down to 19 finalists.

“These are the real people who are the Real Food Challenge,” said Tricia Kiefer, food day coordinator of the Real Food Challenge.

The Real Food Awards provide an opportunity to put “names and faces to our organization, and really saying these are the stories making ‘real food’ a reality,” Kiefer said.

The winners of each category will be determined by votes via the Real Food Awards website by Nov. 9, and will be announced on Nov. 18. All winners will be featured on the Real Food Challenge website and receive a certificate of recognition. The winners in the Student and Worker Leader categories will receive $750 cash prizes.

The Real Food Challenge will also be awarding “Pioneer Awards,” recognizing schools piloting the Real Food Calculator and/or signing the Real Food Campus Commitment. The Real Food Calculator is a measurement students take to calculate how much “real food” they have in their dining halls. Students go through dining hall receipts and put the food into one of the four categories: Local/Community, Humane, Ecologically Sound and Fair.

The Real Food Campus Commitment is a pledge universities and colleges sign to “support a healthy food system” by shifting their food purchases to 20 percent “real food” by 2020.

“[We’re focusing on] one campus at a time rather than change the whole system over night,” Kiefer said.

The primary goal of the Real Food Challenge, according to their website, is to “shift $1 billion of existing university food budgets away from industrial farms and junk food and towards local/community-based, fair, ecologically sound and humane food sources by 2020.” Since the inception of the Real Food Challenge in 2007, the organization has been able to effectively shift $35 million to “real food.”

The organization plans to reach their goal through initiating and assisting in student-led campaigns. They offer support and training to students through Real Food Challenge campus visits, providing leadership training and development sessions and supplying campaign materials on their website. Additionally, the Real Food Challenge holds summits with interactive workshops, speeches given by movement leaders and panel discussions.

“We believe in the power of students,” Kiefer said, “and we believe students have the energy and power in the system to make a lot of change.”


To learn more about the Real Food Awards and the Real Food Challenge, visit