By Laura Butler and Lindsay Huffman
Most students don’t grow their own food unless it’s on FarmVille, and so most don’t think about where the food they’re eating comes from. When deciding about an on-campus meal, students debate about whether they might want to eat pizza, a burger or maybe a salad. But where was this food grown, and how did it come to be in Powell?Universities across the nation, including Eastern, have been pushing for “greener,” more sustainable practices when it comes to their dining services, and producing and using locally grown foods plays a large role in these efforts.
Eastern’s eco-friendly efforts
Eastern is currently in a contract with Aramark, a corporation that specializes in food services. In 2007, Eastern renewed its contract with Aramark.
According to the proposal Aramark outlined for Eastern, “Whenever possible, food will be purchased fresh; when this is not possible, frozen foods will be used.”
However, written specifications about purchasing local foods don’t go much beyond those statements. In the actual Food Services Management Agreement, there is no clause that specifies a certain percentage of food should be purchased locally.
Even though Eastern’s food contract doesn’t stipulate that Aramark has to buy a certain amount of local food each year, Eastern does purchase several products locally, said Charlie Brubeck, the director of operations at EKU Dining.
He said some of the local products Eastern purchases include cornmeal from Weisenberger Mills Inc. in Midway and bread from Klosterman Baking, which operates in Cincinnati and Louisville.
When products are in season, Brubeck said Eastern tries to buy fruits and vegetables from the Louisville market, and other seasonal foods from food distributors such as Sysco in Louisville and Piazza Produce in Indianapolis. He also said most of Eastern’s zucchini and squash are purchased locally.
“We try to get stuff fresh when it’s available,” Brubeck said. “We can’t guarantee that it’s always a Kentucky product, but lots of times it is.”
Also, Eastern’s Department of Agriculture owns its own farm near Waco, called Meadowbrook Farm, which the agriculture students use as a learning tool.
One of the staff members, Scott Engel, said the nearly 450 gallons of milk produced by Eastern’s cows each day is sent to the Flav-O-Rich plant in London, Ky.
Brubeck said Eastern buys all of its milk from this Flav-O-Rich plant.
“All milk and bread is purchased locally, daily,” he said. “We go through a lot of bread and a lot of milk.”
“I think Eastern is going in the right direction,” Brubeck said. “It’s going to take time, but we’re going in the right direction.”
A growing trend
Other schools have made a few more strides toward making sustainable, local purchasing their primary priorities. Emory College, located near Atlanta, is nationally recognized as the leader in this practice. Directors in food services at Emory recently announced goals to push the local food movement even further, with the most prominent aspiration being to increase the amount of local food used in their dining locations to 75 percent by 2015.
Sustainable Food Service Education Coordinator Julie Shaffer said the campus has eagerly adapted to participating in as many eco-friendly initiatives as possible since 2002, largely due to student demand.
“The students are all over it,” Shaffer said. “We have vegan options in the hall every day and they ask for the vegan and vegetarian options. We have a chef who does a great job with the vegan menus and the students love them, even those who aren’t vegans.”
Due to price restrictions, Shaffer said the amount of locally raised meats is smaller than they would like, but students can eat burgers every Wednesday made from grass-fed beef from a Georgia ranch. Since the university hasn’t been able to provide much additional funding to offset the increased price associated with purchasing local, less processed foods, Shaffer said they’ve had to be more creative with the budget they use to prepare 48,000 meals each day for the campus and surrounding hospitals – namely by reducing portion sizes with meats and increasing the use of grains, legumes and vegetables.
While Emory sits in the forefront of sustainable food practices, other local universities are trying to implement some of the same ideas.
Mac Stone, who works with the Kentucky Department of Agriculture, said the University of Kentucky is “way out in front” in sustainability.
He said UK buys whole animals from a farm in western Kentucky and buys apples from a local farmer. Stone said these little accomplishments with food distribution companies are crucial to the green movement.
“You have to brag on the little successes,” he said. “If they give you an inch, you have to act like they gave you a mile.”
Stone said Berea College is also beefing up its eco-friendly initiatives, and has used student power to grow critical conversations about going green.
Cait McClanahan, Berea College’s dining services sustainability coordinator, began working at Berea three years ago and said Berea now buys about 7 percent of its food from local vendors (within 100 miles), compared with 0 percent three years ago.
“It takes time to work out. We have a good groove now,” she said. “Partnerships can be pretty easily worked out.”
McClanahan said Berea now gets everything from meat, to eggs, to fruits, to salad greens during the winter months from the college farm and local vendors.
“The students work on the farm and in dining services,” she said. “We’re supporting our own labor program.”
However, there are still challenges for Berea College to overcome, McClanahan said. One challenge is the fact that Berea serves about 9,200 meals a week.
“The challenge is getting food here quickly and in huge quantities,” she said.
What happens next?
Berea’s challenge seems to be a common concern across the board. Brubeck said Eastern serves 17,000 meals every week. With this many meals to hand out, some food has to be brought in from outside sources.
But this brings about another set of issues-namely paying for the gas it takes to get the food here.
Shaffer said it’s not sustainable to use fossil fuels to transport food across the nation.
“The average food items travel 1,500 miles from the field to your plate,” she said. “That’s a big carbon footprint.”
Decreasing the distance food travels requires consumers to readjust to eating seasonally, Shaffer said.
“With the globalization of food in the 1980s, it was suddenly possible to get anything we wanted any time of the year,” she said. “Now we realize because of global warming and environmental factors it was not a very good thing to do. We’ve poisoned our air, water and soil. really a negative impact. It was exciting to get what we wanted and we became kind of spoiled.”
But Shaffer said she is hopeful for the future.
“Ten years from now, we’ll land somewhere in the middle with a more localized food system,” she said. “We know we can’t go on transporting foods great distances.”
Stone said sustainability at universities is something that “takes a strong union of students.”
Elaine Hope, a junior environmental health science major from Fort Mitchell said she tries to do her part to be active in making healthy, organic food choices.
“I consider myself health conscious,” Hope said. “I see both sides of
the issue. There’s the money issue – we can’t even keep the library open on weekends.and if we can’t do that we shouldn’t spend money on organic foods.
“Organic would definitely be cool, but if it’s going to increase the cost of tuition then. no.”
Brubeck said the best way for Eastern to become more involved with sustainable food practices is for students to learn more about the movement.
“I feel like a lot of students out there now don’t know, they’re not as familiar as students who are heavily involved [with the green movement],” he said. “There’s a pack of students who are involved in recycling issues, but some students aren’t.”
But Brubeck said students can visit the Aramark website and learn more about sustainable practices if they are interested.
“Everybody’s learning more and more every day,” Brubeck said. “There’s always something new about green products.”
Want to be a “locavore?”
Dictionary.com defines a locavore as “one who eats only locally grown or raised food.” Many Americans are choosing to become locavores because of the potential to increase economic health in their communities, prevent the consumption of foods grown with chemicals used in many large farms and promote community ties. But how does one become a locavore? To learn more about ways to become involved with the local foods movement, be sure to check out these groups.
Joyce Begley, a vendor at the Berea Farmers’ Market, said there are many advantages in buying food from local farmers’ markets.
“You get to know the people who grow the food you eat,” she said.
Begley said farmers’ market foods are fresher, healthier and reduce the overall carbon footprint by using less gas to transport the foods.
Donna Wellman, the owner of Grinning Planet Farm, also said buying from farmers’ markets helps the local economy.
“It helps the merchants, which helps everyone,” she said. “It makes sure things stay local.”
The Richmond Farmers’ Market will open in May at the Lowe’s parking lot. The Berea Farmers’ Market is open Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays at the Welcome Center in Old Town. The Lexington Farmers’ Market is open Saturdays and Sundays, and will be open Tuesdays and Thursdays starting in May. The Saturday market is at Cheapside Park, the Sunday market is at Southland Drive and the Tuesday and Thursday markets will be at South Broadway/Maxwell Street.
Slow Food USA
Julie Shaffer, the Sustainable Food Service Education Coordinator at Emory College, is also the founder of Slow Food Atlanta. She said Slow Food USA is “an international nonprofit educational organization dedicated to counteracting the fast food effects of our culture.” The focuses of the group are educating others about sustainability and making sure foods are clean and nutritious. The local chapter of this organization is called Slow Food Bluegrass-from Lexington to Louisville. Visit www.slowfoodusa.org for more information.
The Real Food Challenge
This is a national initiative made up of people who want to bring “real food” to college campuses. The challenge focuses on four aspects of real food: producers, the earth, communities and consumers. In Kentucky, three organizations participate in The Real Food Challenge: Community Farm Alliance, the Kentucky Student Environmental Coalition and the Kentucky Green Edge Collaborative. To learn more, visit realfoodchallenge.org.