The Challenges of Serving Local Food in the Dining Hall — and Writing About It All

RPI building
Green Mountain College is trying to raise crops without using fossil fuels on its college farm. This means that the students Ryan Dixon (the teamster) and Casey Martin (riding the mower) have to put Lou and Bill to work. (Green Mountain College image)

Newsprint is a finite medium, which means that there is always information that writers have to leave out in order to fit into the space available — especially if there is a lot going on in a particular topic. Such was the case this week with a story about local and sustainable food at Emory University and other institutions, including Middlebury College and Green Mountain College. You can read the story here, along with a sidebar about local food at Bates College.

The story notes that food-service companies can sometimes complicate the quest for more local food in the dining-hall offerings. Food-service companies work through established food-distribution lines that don’t always include local-food sources. What got left out of the story was that Sodexo and other food-service companies are trying to expand their sources of food to include local farmers and distributors. While the company once worked with a handful of mega-distributors, it now works with about 80 that are hooked into local distribution networks, says Arlin Wasserman, Sodexo’s vice president of corporate citizenship. The company has also hired about 40 “foragers” — people who work to establish connections between small to mid-size farmers and local distributors.

Mr. Wasserman says this means that up to 20 percent to 30 percent of the food served at Sodexo-run dining halls is local. Obviously, in northern climates, raising the local proportion is more challenging. In winter, “we can’t do the all-parsnip diet,” Mr. Wasserman quipped.

Green Mountain College also has an interesting project under way on its college farm, which didn’t find its way into the story: The college is trying to operate a farm free of fossil fuels. That means no tractors, no chemical fertilizers, no pesticides. It’s getting back to a type of farming that has been largely forgotten in this country. Moreover, the farm will have to be productive, as a small chunk of the college’s meal plan relies on it. Folks at the college hope that the farm will provide around 5 percent of the food served on campus within a few years.

Emory, Green Mountain, and other colleges not only are serving local food, but they also are also making the politics and practices of local-food production part of their curricula. The University of New Hampshire, where local food makes up about 16 percent of the menu items, has just started an ecogastronomy program. Because local food is trendy, educators realize that they have an opportunity to teach students about some of the deeper issues in agronomy and agriculture. These lessons are desperately needed in America today. —Scott Carlson

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