November 13, 2006

Local Foods Hit C.U. Dining

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Cornell University’s students no longer have to go to the Ithaca Farmer’s Market to find locally grown produce. As part of a recent Cornell Dining initiative, Cornell’s dining facilities are trying to incorporate local foods into their services whenever possible.

The increase in local food has implications for Cornell Dining and the larger community it serves. “One of the number one benefits [of local produce] is that you’re getting the freshest product,” said Colleen Wright-Riva, director of dining services. Other benefits cited by Wright-Riva include the environmental benefits of reduced transportation, increased community ties and the positive impacts on the local economy.

“We think giving back to the local community and giving money back to the local economy is one of the best things we can do,” said Wright-Riva.

Cornell’s commitment to local foods began with a pilot program about five years ago at North Star dining facility in Appel Commons. The program featured a kiosk which featured fresh, and when available, local produce.

According to Anthony Kveragas, senior executive chef for retail operations, who formally headed the program at North Star, the local food initiative at Cornell “never really grew … not until this year, until we got some students involved in it.”

Late last fall semester, interested students brought their findings regarding the feasibility of increasing the purchase of locally produced goods, to Cornell Dining. These students were interested in the Farm to College initiative, which links universities nationwide with local farmers. The students based their findings, on a comparative analysis of Cornell’s participation in the Farm to College program with other school’s participation.

Throughout last spring semester, the group of students worked with Dining to significantly increase the amount of local produce it purchased to record levels.

Kveragas estimates that this year Cornell Dining spent approximately 20 percent more on local produce purchases than it spent last year. However, Dining is still in the process of analyzing the figures to determine how much of that increase is due to substitution of local for non-local produce, and how much is potentially related to a business increase, or product price increase.

One of the questions raised by this initiative is: what is local? Currently, Cornell Dining designates food as local, regional, or unspecified. Under Dining’s current definition, local food comes from anywhere within New York State, while food designated regional comes from Pennsylvania, New Jersey and eastern Ohio. Cornell chefs have been instructed to primarily purchase goods locally, and then towards regional and unspecified, depending on availability, quality and price.
Cornell Dining is looking at reducing the terms of its definition of local.

“Next year, one of the things we’re looking at is making the region smaller, maybe not 100 miles- but 200 miles” said Dana Shapiro ’06, a founding member of Cornell’s Farm to Cornell organization, which focuses its efforts on increasing the percentage of local food purchased by Cornell.

As Cornell’s initiative is in its first year, those involved have varying ideas over how they would like to see the initiative progress. A lot of emphasis has been placed on educating Cornell’s students about the benefits of local food. According to Shapiro, food choice is “a way that consumers and students can make a choice that affects the world around them several times every day. Education and outreach are going to be key.”

A consensus exists in that both the students and management involved would like to see the amount of local produce used in Cornell’s dining facilities to continue to increase. According to Kveragas “I think [our goal is] 100 percent when it’s reasonable, and it’s in season.”

Wright-Riva said that Cornell Dining has “directed all chefs to purchase local products … except when product quality is unacceptable or the price is so prohibitive.”

Currently, locally produced food on average is more expensive than non-local. Shapiro attributes the price variability, in part, to the fact that the farming structure in New York State is based on small scale farms. According to Shapiro the higher prices for local produce are not fixed. Once barriers, such as lack of local processing facilities, are addressed, local food prices can be driven down.

According to Wright-Riva, Cornell Dining has responded to the cost of locally produced food by “adjusting internally, so there’s no additional cost to [its] customers and students.” The internal measures undertaken by Cornell Dining include menu and purchasing alterations to offset the costs of local food.