October 29, 2007

Dining Halls Buy More From Local Retailers

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When eating in a dining hall, there is over a 20 percent probability that the food on the plate is locally produced. Last year, Cornell Dining purchased 23 percent of its foods locally and is looking to increase this percentage.
According to Anthony Kveragas, senior executive chef for retail operations, since last year, all of Cornell’s dining facilities have been directed to buy at least 20 percent of their food locally. The actual percentage of local food reached 23 percent last year, and Cornell Dining is in the process of calculating the figure for this year.
“We are working on tracking the actual number of cases of each product … but I know the percentage [of local food] has in­creased,” said Douglas Lockwood, office manager for Cornell Dining.
Cornell Dining is seeking to further incorporate local foods into dining here at Cornell in order to contribute to the sustainability of local agriculture and also to provide a better dining experience.
Julie Grossman grad, program coordinator for agricultural sciences, commented on the benefits of promoting local foods.
“This brings fresh healthy food to people without the negative environmental impacts caused by long-distance shipping, while at the same time meeting farmers economic needs and educating the public about the importance of sustaining healthy agricultural communities,” she said.
Cornell Dining designates food as local, regional and other. The current definition of local applies to food that is produced within New York State or within 100 miles radius around campus. This radius also incorporates some parts of Pennsylvania. Regional food comes from a larger area of 250 miles radius around campus. Other is a term applied to food purchased from a location outside both the local and regional areas. According to Lockwood, Cornell Dining purchases its food from the local area first. If the necessary food is not available locally, Cornell Dining will search within the greater regional area, and then other areas.
Cornell Dining also collaborates with its local produce vendor, Ithaca Produce, to promote the use of local food.
“In our contract, we have language that stipulates that the vendor will source their foods locally,” Lockwood said.
However, there are several limiting factors that prevent dining facilities from buying more local foods. One of them is availability. By virtue of the seasonal environment around Cornell, vegetables and fruits are more bountiful in summer and more scarce in the winter weather that is prevalent for a majority of the academic year. The geographic conditions also limit the variety of local produce so that it cannot always meet the demands of Cornell’s diverse dining system.
Another limiting factor for buying more local foods is the cost. According to Lockwood, buying local foods is sometimes expensive because many local farmers have small farms and sell their produce at retail prices.
Lockwood added that because Cornell Dining provides 26,000 meals per day, currently, the most cost-effective way to purchase produce is to buy in bulk. This also makes dining more affordable to the people Cornell Dining serves.
Kveragas noted the question of quality in Cornell Dining’s goal of incorporating more local foods.
“Quality comes first to our dining. We will buy local produce as long as the local farms can provide the quality,” he said.
To address these complications in promoting local food, Cornell Dining initiates dialogue and collaborates with its local providers.
This past August, Cornell Dining formed an official advisory council to bring Ithaca Produce and various chefs, students, and agriculture organizations together to identify ways of increasing local food purchases. Through the Cornell Dining Local Food Advisory Council the local providers are better able to know what Cornell Dining needs and adjust their production according to the University’s demand; while on the other side, Cornell Dining can prepare menus beforehand based on information about the local farms’ supply. Besides, the council works on issues such as food safety and quality.
“It’s a two-way street. That’s why we have this local food advisory council to bridge the gap and communicate with our local growers,” said Lockwood.
Cornell Dining also sponsored the Local Food Growers Dinner this past January and the Fall Harvest Dinner this past September in the Robert Purcell Community Center to enhance the relationship between the University and local growers. All the foods served at these two dinners were local.
In addition, student participation has strengthened Cornell’s promotion of local food. Student organizations, such as Farm to Cornell and Cornell’s student-run farm Dilmun Hill, help to connect the local production system with the University and raise people’s awareness about local food and agricultural sustainability.
Some students have found particularly creative ways to contribute.
Three graduate students at Cornell, Dana Shapino, Jessie Comba and Ethan Rainwater, who are also part of Cornell Dining Local Food Advisory Council, published a 16-month calendar called Eat This. The calendar provides a healthy recipe containing ingredients from local farms in New York State for each month.
According to Kveragas, Cornell Dining is looking to increase student involvement in the process of promoting local foods in University dining in several ways, on of which will be buying more food from Dilmun Hill.