Eating Local, 101

Farm-to-cafeteria programs offer students a lesson in food grown close to home

November 01, 2006|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Sun reporter

As the first students amble in for lunch at Goucher College's Heubeck Dining Hall, chef Clinton Elliott promotes his daily special: tender ravioli filled with wild mushroom goat cheese from FireFly Farms Organic in Garrett County.

If Elliott's homemade pasta doesn't entice, students may choose from a cornucopia of other dishes prepared with local ingredients.

The baked chicken breasts hail from Springfield Farm in Sparks. Chestnuts from another chef's Baltimore County farm bring earthy flavor to the stuffing. The apple crisp was prepared with fruit from Eden Valley Farm, northwest of Philadelphia. The sauteed kale and roasted Yukon potatoes came from Help From Above Farm in Pennsylvania. New Morning Farm, also in Pennsylvania, supplied the green beans, served with garlic, ginger and red bell pepper strips.

"It's nice to have fresh vegetables," said sophomore Sierra Polisar as she lunched with classmates. At home in Silver Spring, meals depend on produce from her mother's garden. "I'm used to good stuff," Polisar said.

In 2003, Goucher joined the growing number of colleges and universities around the country that are rejecting industrial agriculture's domination of the food-services industry. Instead, these schools have signed on to the "localvore" movement in search of regional produce, meat and dairy products.

Farm-to-cafeteria programs have taken different forms at different institutions. In 2002, chef Alice Waters teamed with Aramark food services to launch a farm-to-cafeteria food program in her daughter's dining hall at Yale University.

An organic garden cultivated by students at Middlebury College in Vermont yields heirloom tomatoes, blueberries, beets and sweet onions sold at market price to the school's dining service.

At the Johns Hopkins University's Homewood campus, students can feast on local pears, rockfish and gelato made in Baltimore as part of the school's fledgling sustainability program. At Loyola College, 10 percent of the produce served on campus comes from local growers.

"My best guess is that there are probably close to 200 projects at colleges and universities around the country that are purchasing products from local farmers in a significant way," says Kristen Markley, a central Pennsylvania organic farmer who manages the farm-to-college program for the Community Food Security Coalition, based in Venice, Calif.

`Socially responsible'

Five years ago, most food-to-college programs operated independently, Markley says. Now, of the 130 programs surveyed by her coalition, most are managed by food services such as Bon Appetit, Sodexho and Aramark. "Practically every school service has gotten involved," she says.

To rely on small and medium-size farms is "good business, and it's also socially responsible," says Norman Zwagil, who manages Goucher's food services for Bon Appetit, a Palo Alto, Calif.-based company committed to purchasing at least 25 percent of its goods within a 150-mile radius of each cafeteria.

The implications of the recent spinach and lettuce scare for the nation's public health reinforced the benefits of procuring food from smaller, local farms, where it is less prone to wide-scale contamination.

But the way to students' healthy eating habits is through their palates, not their attention to current events, says Goucher sophomore Maggie Wood. "If it doesn't taste good, then people won't eat it, whether it's local or not," she says.

Wood herself has come to believe that fresh food simply tastes better. "You learn to eat different things in season," she says. Her love affair with local strawberries and other delicacies have led to the conviction that "the energy expended on transferring food all over the place, only to come to the grocery store and have it looked bruised, is sort of ridiculous."

But it takes a critical mass of vocal students to transform a dining-hall menu, says Kathleen Merrigan, director of the Agriculture, Food and Environment program at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University in Boston.

"I think the biggest challenge, besides all of the institutional impediments and seasonality, is creating that demand" for local food, Merrigan says. So far, at least on Tufts' undergraduate campus, there hasn't been "sufficient demand to topple the status quo."

The local food selection has gradually expanded at Tufts, but "only so much of it will happen because of good will and wanting to do the right thing," Merrigan says. "To permeate the institution here, there needs to be a greater outcry."

Through the group Food Education and Action for Sustainability at Tufts, Merrigan and others are trying to snag students' allegiance to local foods with a series of amusing posters, including one featuring a biomedical engineering major juggling apples from a Massachusetts farm.

At Goucher, students haven't pounced on the "eat local" bandwagon en masse. Says sophomore Ava Rapp, "It's nice to know when things are local, but it's not a huge deal to me."

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