Sustainable Feast at the College Dining Hall

November 25, 2009

Christine Burns Rudalevige, Philadelphia Inquirer -- "This is just the best way to do food. It hits on taste, nutrition, and the environment," said Marie Witt, vice president of the Business Services Division at the University of Pennsylvania.

Smoked duck with lingonberry and pecan glaze, braised mustard greens and oyster chowder were on the menu at Philadelphia University's Thanksgiving dinner for 600 students last week.

Chefs were carving roasted turkey; cherry chutney, parsnip mash, and a cranberry and sour cherry polenta tart were among the offerings.

If that wasn't impressive enough for a college dining hall, consider this: The entire menu was sourced locally, the free-range turkey from Koch's Farm in Lewistown Valley, the produce from 12 surrounding farms, the oysters from Long Island (OK, a stretch there, but still within 150 miles), the wild mushrooms on the turkey burger from Kennett Square, the smoked cheddar cheese produced at Hendricks Farms in Telford.

It was a show-off meal, no doubt, but it is illustrative of the effort many colleges are making to include local, sustainable foods in their cafeterias.

While the push for local food has often been initiated by students, administrations have found it easy to embrace: The food is fresher; the college supports local farmers, contributing to the economy; the institution's carbon footprint is reduced; it's a valuable nutrition lesson for students; and, it can often cost less. Not to mention how much better the food tastes.

"This is just the best way to do food. It hits on taste, nutrition, and the environment," said Marie Witt, vice president of the Business Services Division at the University of Pennsylvania.

"It's about empowerment for these college kids," said Noah Gress, a Chester County farmer who supplies Swarthmore College with greens and potatoes. "Most environmental issues are so global. . . knowing where their food comes from gives them a little bit of sovereignty."endnu

Growing their own

Indeed, more and more schools are taking the movement to the next level - growing their own food. Programs range from small produce gardens to a 33-acre farm at Dickinson College, run partly by students, that during its growing season supplies the dining hall with 85 percent of its produce.

Using the dining hall to teach maturing eaters is not new. In 2001 Alice Waters of Chez Panisse fame turned up in New Haven, Conn., (where her daughter was a student) to create the Yale Sustainable Food Project.

But eating-green momentum has hit critical mass. Institutions can now trot out sustainability statistics on how they've reduced food waste and increased the use of foods not produced by the industrial food chain.

"Food is more tangible than other sustainability efforts on campuses because students can actually touch it three times a day," said Mark Orlowski, executive director of the Sustainable Endowments Institute, which grades schools on overall sustainability practices.

It is easier because "you can attack the issue from so many different angles. You can buy locally to reduce carbon emissions, go trayless to cut down on water use, or push for meat that comes from humanely treated animals," said Henry Barmeier, a Princeton University senior.

Tastes good, too

The flavor of sustainable foods, which tend to taste better than those that have traveled thousands of miles to the plate, seals the deal.

"The heirloom tomato, basil and arugula salad at brunch today was AMAZING!!! Please have it again soon!" a Swarthmore student wrote on a recycled paper napkin tacked to a wall in the foyer of the college's dining hall.

Seeing a teachable moment, the dining hall staff wrote back: "Salads are so good when the ingredients are local and seasonal. We would love to have it again, but can't promise the freshness of the tomatoes since the season is coming to an end."

The steady rise of sustainable foods in dining halls is a conflux of a few vocal students who started demanding change and administrations that were receptive to the message.

In 2005, two Penn students knocked on Laurie Cousart's door and asked why there was not more local food in the dining halls. "They were right," said the business services director, who oversees dining services. "We needed to make that happen," she said.

Penn now spends almost 20 percent of its $6.7 million food budget on local fruits, vegetables, and dairy products. It serves only cage-free eggs and sustainably caught seafood.

Michelle Jacobson, 22, a Penn graduate student, eats in the dining halls five times weekly and has noticed several appetizing adjustments compared to her days as an undergraduate eater at Penn.

"You can see the seasonal changes. The food just doesn't look as processed as it used to," she said.

Hands-on produce

More than 60 percent of schools rated by the Sustainable Endowments Institute say students have a hand in growing their food.

Swarthmore's students involved with the Good Food Project are expanding their garden to include chickens.

Penn built an indoor hydroponics garden to give chefs and students access to fresh herbs, and is exploring the possibility of a swinery where pigs would be raised humanely for eventual slaughter.

Temple students planted a community garden on a piece of an unused university property on the corner of 11th and Berks Streets. The produce is sold to the wider Temple community with proceeds going to Share Food Program Inc.

A unique farm-to-fork program has been cultivated by Dickinson College in Carlisle. The college maintains a 33-acre farm comprising about a dozen acres of plowed fields yielding tomatoes, field greens, carrots, potatoes, zucchini, and eggplant; pastureland for sheep and chickens; a composting site; and three solar-powered greenhouses. It is currently staffed by two full-time directors, 10 paid student farmers on the federal work-study program, and a weekly rotation of 10 to 15 student volunteers.

nu"Most students have been out there for some related class, or to fulfill a service requirement for their fraternity or sorority, or to just weed in exchange for free veggies," said Kalyn Campbell, a senior environmental studies major who works there 10 hours a week.endnu

"One of the really important aspects of the farm is that we bridge the work we do in the fields with the academic focus of the college," said farm director Jennifer Halpin. nuStudents and faculty conduct research there on soil management, composting, pollinators, and pest management. The farm is also used by the environmental studies, geology, biology, and history departments as a venue for field labs and class meetings.endnu

A selling point

Brian Snyder, director of the Pennsylvania Association of Sustainable Agriculture, is pleased that food sustainability is a new category by which colleges compete. The "buy local" mantra has been heard in the past, but local farmers sometimes got squeezed out by cost-cutting measures, he said.

"We are now definitely seeing a more consistent approach because colleges are making it a philosophical priority," Snyder said.

When Stuart Orefice, director of Princeton's dining service, first asked his suppliers five years ago to source produce locally, he was willing to pay a 5 percent premium.

"The directive is so prevalent now that in many cases, local is cheaper for us," he said.

Big companies on board

This is also a priority for large dining-services providers. Aramark, Bon Appetit, Sodexocq , and Parkhurst have outlined general sustainable food, recycling, and resource conservation goals, and work with clients to tailor programs locally.

"You've got to give credit to these commercial chefs," said Trent Hendricks, a Telford-based farmer who supplies Penn with grass-fed beef and specialty cheeses. "They are used to placing their produce orders at 2 p.m. one day and getting the delivery by 7 a.m. the next. And now they've got to take the time to talk with farmers months in advance to get quantities they need."

Chefs love the creativity that working with local foods allows, but also say food that is not preprocessed takes more time to, well, process in the kitchen.

"Those local potatoes come into the kitchen pretty dirty," said Benton Peak, a chef at Swarthmore. "But I do think the students appreciate them more."

Originally published in the November 25, 2009 issue of The Philadelphia Inquirer.


Penn’s Perelman Center for Advanced Medicine was the first health facility to achieve LEED certification in Philadelphia and in the entire Delaware Valley.

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