Fresh, healthful and sustainable: Berea’s local foods

Nov 05, 2012 1 Comment by

“I’ve been to a lot of schools and seen a lot of programs and what we’re doing here is really quite unique,” says Cait McClanahan, sustainability coordinator for Berea College’s dining services. She is speaking of the college’s ability to fulfill food needs through the college farm—including returning kitchen waste back to the soil through the large-scale composting system. Yet it’s important to remember that this symbiotic relationship has only been re-established recently as a part of Berea College’s and several concerned students and staff members’ goals to drastically reduce the school’s carbon footprint.

Five years ago it became clear that in order to meet the Local Food Initiative’s goals to return to a dining hall supported entirely through the college farm like it was prior to the 1950s, Sodexo would need to hire a sustainability coordinator. Says McClanahan, “It was pretty obvious that they needed to have someone on site to do the logistics of it, and that’s when I came - in 2007.” In the five years that she’s been here, McClanahan has helped to increase the amount of local food offered in the dining hall and school café to 15% of the dining services’ food budget. By the year 2015, they have every intention of increasing that number to 51%.

One of the first items to source locally was meat. “For one thing it’s a commodity that the farm produced, and at one time [they were] just taking those animals and selling them to feedlots or to the general market,” explains McClanahan. Working together in close partnership with dining services, the college farm began raising their cattle all the way through adult-hood on grass and then processing the meat on a schedule that works for dining services. “We’re getting a very healthy product in those animals…it feels like the best option for serving students—an animal that’s been raised in a healthy and humane way.”

For the produce, the benefits of local are a no-brainer. “Its incredibly fresh, its just been picked, its coming the shortest possible distance that it can come from, and when we buy from the farm we’re supporting our own labor program—so that is a win all the way around. Pesticide free, of course, you know it’s just the healthiest thing we can serve.”

But the dining hall is also committed to buying from other local farmers as well. Mostly, these purchases include items that fill in the gaps of products not offered through the Berea College farm, such as the Bauman’s turkeys or supplements to the Berea college eggs (recently added thanks to a student project starting up chicken tractors over the summer). The challenge is finding enough variety of products through sources that are not just local but sustainably and responsibly grown.

Through pressure from McClanahan and other dedicated students and individuals, Papania’s—one of Sodexo’s local distributers—has begun including Kentucky Proud farms in their offerings. These farms aren’t necessarily organic or sustainable, but they do provide a better alternative than the same type of product being shipped all the way from California. Even Sysco has responded to the demand for more local products, just in the last year beginning to stock things like local milled corn, flour, meats, jam and honey. Says McClanahan, “That’s been a direct result of understanding that there’s a demand for local products, and responding to it. We have, over the last five years, bought a lot less stuff through Sysco —like meats and those kinds of things. I think that probably they have taken note of that (laughs)… you know, driven some of their willingness to come up with alternatives that we can order from them.”

While the large-scale distributors offer items at a lower cost, this difference doesn’t occur without a cut to area farmers. The fact remains that good quality, sustainably grown local food simply costs more. Says McClanahan, “We’re really committed to keeping students’ costs the same. So that’s one of the challenges, how do you do that and not increase costs for students.”

Funding issues are a hurdle for the college farm as well. They work hard to establish new growing projects in a way that still competes with the prices of Sodexo’s national food distributers. Restaurant Rewards—a program offered through Kentucky Department of Agriculture—has helped local farms and Food Services alike by providing Kentucky Proud Certified Restaurants with a partial reimbursement on all direct-farm purchases. Dining Services is able to reclaim .18 cents on the dollar for purchases made directly from farmers, which allows them to keep making more purchases and thus continue supporting farmers. So far these savings have maxed out at about $12,000 per year.

Reducing waste is another approach to offsetting the higher food costs. McClanahan explains, “Over the years we keep noticing that our food wastes are similar to what we see wasted on plates.” With a computer software program called LeanPath, the school kitchen has reduced the amount of food waste they generate by 30% of what it was prior to the program’s inception in March 2012. The system encourages kitchen staff to take responsibility for items being thrown away (or in this case composted) by requiring staff to track of every item discarded. Computers in the kitchen now have a touch-screen menu where staff record the food, amount, and reason for each throw-away item, which can then help them chart which items are contributing to the most kitchen waste and why. Cook-to order style stations also cut down on waste by avoiding cooking excess food.

Other challenges to the 51% local food goal will be infrastructural. The college farm has worked with the dining hall to time their meat and produce offerings to closer match the ungoing needs of the dining hall but that doesn’t change the fact that the majority of produce is ready mid-summer when most students are off-campus. Processing and storage capacity need improving. When dining services recently bought 1500 lbs of hobby farmer David Tipton’s potatoes, the only place to store them was in the cafeteria’s produce cooler. Says McClanahan, “We were just peeling potatoes and using them as fast as we could… it isn’t really sustainable to have that much stuff that you have to use up really quickly like that.” She notes that other schools do things like the cook-chill process where vegetables are blanched quickly and then kept in storage coolers, and that creating summer jobs to can tomatoes and other vegetables might be another option. The school farm is also working at this on their end by creating a new storage and packing facility.

Says McClanahan, “It seems like a slow process at times, but when you actually come in here and look around—it would be a rare day not to see at least three or four different things in here that are completely from the farm. Thanks to the Agriculture Department and farm staff’s strong commitment to increasing what’s grown and produced for us, I feel really optimistic that we can reach our goals.”

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About the author

I'm in my final semester as a literature major here at Berea College. When I'm not leafing through some Mary Oliver or Rick Bass, sawing away at the fiddle, or investigating sustainability articles for my student labor position, chances are you'll find me pawing away at the dirt in my garden backyard or out on some mountain with a backpack and an adventure.

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