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|College Cafeterias Go Local : Columbia River edition : Thursday, 23 May 2019 14:26 PDT : a service of The Public Press|
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College Cafeterias Go Local But in Different Ways
by Sam Rubinoff
I graduated from the University of Vermont in May, and instead of battling the tough job market, I decided to take a different route: riding my bike from Burlington to Maine to get a fresh lobster, camping out along the way.
Shortly after my victory meal, Green Living Journal asked me to write an article on colleges that serve locally grown foods in their cafeterias. By that time, it was late fall, and I challenged myself to bike to several Maine colleges before the snow arrived. The schools—The College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Unity College in Unity, Bates College in Lewiston, and St. Joseph's College in Standish—all advertise a commitment to environmental sustainability. What I discovered was that each of these schools has a different approach to getting local foods onto the daily menu.
First stop was the College of the Atlantic (COA). The campus is in an idyllic setting on the ocean less than a mile from Acadia National Park. The homey COA dining hall features warm non-institutional lighting and small booths that invite intimate conversation. The menu, written on a chalkboard, included one vegetarian and one meat course, along with leftovers from previous meals. Dinner offerings that day were vegetarian lasagna and local pork ribs. The food tasted so great I forgot I was in a college cafeteria. Students are involved in preparing food for every meal. According to Food Service Supervisor Heather Alpert-Knopp, COA "is lucky to have students who are interested in where their food comes from."
All 300 COA students have the same major: Human Ecology. The course offerings encourage students to explore and to become active in social and environmental issues. As Mollie Bedick, a transfer student, puts it, "I feel like there is no separation between my passions and what I am studying." Students who enjoy cooking are encouraged to work in the cafeteria, while those with a green thumb pitch in at nearby Beech Hill Farm. The farm, run by the college, provides an estimated 10% of the produce for COA meals year-round and sustains itself by selling produce to students living off campus as well as to the local community.
Students also play an active role in making the campus sustainable. A physics class designed a windmill that offsets the farmhouse's energy use, and students in a food systems course researched and wrote a paper on the college's food purchasing policy. I was impressed by the intense student involvement at COA and knew this would be a tough act to follow.
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Next stop was Unity College, which boasts "the lowest carbon footprint of any college campus." I also visited the nearby Maine Organic Farm and Gardeners Association (MOFGA), the oldest and largest state organic organization in the country. Unity's Director of Food Service, Sandy Donahue, claims that the school buys 25% of its food locally, but I was disappointed that the food it serves looks and tastes like typical institutional, non-local cafeteria fare. Bulk-produced bleached pasta, pizza, and chicken nuggets dominated the lunch menu. But there was also a salad bar that advertised the use of local produce.
Nonetheless, Unity College has made strides toward eating locally and staying true to its green message. This is largely due to the efforts of Sara Trunzo, an AmeriCorps volunteer and the Community-Based Learning Food and Farm Project Coordinator. A recent Unity College alumna, Trunzo is motivated to introduce campus-grown food to the menu. "We could really be saving the college money," she says. But she also noted that the cafeteria is understaffed and has insufficient facilities for food preparation and storage. As a result, it often turns away free, freshly grown food because it takes more labor and time to prepare. As Donahue explained, it's actually cheaper to buy minced garlic imported in bulk from Argentina than to accept free fresh garlic from the campus garden and pay a school employee to chop it. I later learned that an entire basil crop destined for pesto had succumbed to frost because the dining hall was too understaffed to process it. The cafeteria has several work-study positions but few students want to work there. Campus-grown food doesn't go to waste, however; Trunzo donates at least a quarter of the harvested produce to a local food pantry.
Students at Unity College seem less interested than COA students in where their food comes from. Donahue sees a disconnect between classroom and cafeteria. "My hands are tied," she said. "I think that we have to show academics that dining services isn't a separate entity." However, the college recently introduced an Agriculture, Food and Sustainability major to encourage more student awareness about the issue.
Unity College and COA may represent opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of student involvement in food production and preparation, but the schools do share a common obstacle: lack of food storage. Not having space to store freshly-harvested produce limits the quantity of locally grown foods that can be served during the winter months.
Bates College, my third stop, has addressed this issue with a $30 million cafeteria made possible by donors. Cheryl Lacey, Associate Director of Dining Services, explained that with the school's blast chiller locally-grown produce can be "preserved well into the winter months."
Bates serves up to eight entrees per meal, along with a variety of side dishes and salad options—not to mention desserts prepared in an on-campus bakery. After a month subsisting on granola bars, I was in heaven! But aside from what comes from an herb garden, none of the food served is grown on campus. The school buys roughly 30% of its food from local wholesalers. As Lacey sums up, "We just try to do the right thing environmentally and financially." However, she later revealed that Bates offers a full line of Coca Cola and Pepsi products "to satisfy student taste preferences." And, as at Unity College, the most popular menu item is a variation on (non-local) chicken fingers.
My belly full, I pedaled to St. Joseph's College. I had mixed feelings about visiting St. Joseph's because it has a corporate food service provider, Bon Appétit Management Company. The words "corporate food" brought flashbacks of my college dining hall, nicknamed "the grundle" for its low quality meals and unfortunate effects on the digestive system. But Bon Appétit's core mission is to serve "socially responsible food." It purchases 35% of its food locally and operates the on-campus Pearson Town Farm. It even wants the college to introduce farming courses. As far as menu options, Dining Director Stuart Leckie tries to encourage students to eat healthier by offering chicken fingers only once or twice a month. As he puts it, "This is our last chance to get through to them."
Pearson Town Farm is staffed by paid non-student interns and manager Michial Russell. When I arrived, a couple weeks before Thanksgiving, the farm workers were finishing the fall vegetable harvest and had a flock of fat turkeys housed in a hutch made from a recycled church confessional booth. Although most students major in business or nursing, Russell sees the campus farm as key. "It's important to get the young excited about agriculture," he said. He also thinks non-farmers should "return to the victory gardens" of the 1940s instead of relying on food from other countries.
St. Joseph's was the last of my four-college cafeteria tour. I was impressed by its commitment to farming and purchasing local foods. However, aside from a small handful of students, the farm is staffed by paid employees. Russell says most students "don't even know the farm is here."
Each of the colleges I visited has developed unique ways to bring local foods to the cafeteria table. The College of the Atlantic inspires involvement by its environmentally conscious students. Bates College benefits from donor support for its state-of-the-art food facilities. Unity College relies on the drive of an alumnus who is committed to bringing student-grown food to the cafeteria. And St. Joseph's College has an innovative relationship with a corporate food-service provider that stresses sustainability.
So, which college comes out on top? During my seven-week bike tour, I had plenty of time to think about this. In my opinion, the most important thing a college cafeteria can do is to instill in students a commitment to a lifetime of healthy and conscious eating. I have no idea how students who graduate from these colleges will conduct their future eating lives. But, based on the current degree of student involvement producing the food eaten on campus, I think College of the Atlantic alumnae will turn out to be the most conscious eaters of the bunch.
Rankings aside, most colleges have been making their student cafeterias more sustainable by serving local foods. After nearly two months on the road, I had firsthand knowledge of the brutal effects of Maine's weather. As St. Joseph's College Farm Manager Michial Russell puts it, "If it can be done in Maine, it can be done anywhere."
It was early November, winter had arrived, and it was time to point my handlebars south so I could make it home to New Jersey and finish my 1600-mile ride in time for Thanksgiving. I beat the snow by one day.
Sam Rubinoff is Green Living's roving reporter. Have bike, will travel.
College Cafeterias: Local Fare
by Sam Rubinoff
We called around to area college to see what they are doing to provide students with local fare:
"We have partnered with Black River Produce, a Vermont owned company, as our preferred vendor for all of our produce purchases. Though Black River does not solely provide Vermont products due to our short growing season, they make every effort to provide Vermont products and products grown as close as possible to Vermont. We have also started working with the Community Garden on campus to feature some of the vegetables in our menus. Recently we joined the Vermont Fresh Network, which is a network of farmers, producers, distributors, and institutions that have a commitment to supporting Vermont and its farms to provide the highest quality produce that we can offer. We have begun a comprehensive analysis of our other purchases to find where we can do more to purchase locally."
Tadd Stone, Director of dining services
"I get everything available local. All meat is local. In the winter we get root vegetables from Vermont. This was the first year of the student farm. We grew a variety of vegetables and we are going to double the size of it next year. The idea is to get everything I can locally and then cover the balance with farm to table"
Food Service Manager Preston Nicholas
"We coordinated a program with [the student run] farm committee on campus. They grow mostly greens. Most of the time we use Black River Produce and we try to use as much in-season local product that we can."
Dining Director Eugene Sanders
Green Mountain College
"…We feature yogurts and cottage cheese on a daily basis and use Cabot Cheddar as our cheese of choice for Macaroni&Cheese. Our milk is provided by Thomas dairy of Rutland, VT and a large percentage of our ice cream is from Wilcox Dairy in Manchester, VT. In addition to the produce received from the college farm we use only local apples and apple products in our daily operation. We feature three varieties of apples, apple sauce and apple butter on a daily basis from Champlain Orchards in Shoreham, VT and Apple Cider from Brown's Orchards located in Castleton, VT.
We have also served locally raised items such as Stonewood Farm Turkeys from Orwell, VT, and Wannabea Farm Rabbits from Sushen, NY. Locally raised beef is provided by Northeast Livestock Processing in Sprakers, NY and Black River Produce of Ludlow, VT provides us with additional local produce and specialty products."
David Ondria, Director of Dining
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