Seeking Sustainable Alternatives
By Nikki Batsford
Photos by Ryan Conaty
As Rhode Island’s campuses reopen their doors, welcoming a new wave of students from around the world, dining halls are striving to reverse the effects of globalization—at least agriculturally. With heightening focus on sustainable foodservice, universities are buying more food from area farms and producers.
This seemingly simple change requires tremendous planning and adaptability from chefs and managers but the schools hope the impact of their combined efforts will reach far beyond their dining halls.
Universities have a unique opportunity to alter the local food system through the volume of meals they serve: Residential students depend on dining services for all meals while commuters and staff often grab lunches or snacks on campus. Although large-scale food distributors are usually the most convenient suppliers, they may ship cross country or internationally. This greatly increases fossil-fuel consumption and pollution while taking potential revenue away from our local growers and producers.
Fortunately, chefs at universities around the state are discovering the foods and beverages produced wholesomely at local farms, dairies, kitchens and factories also help create more nutritious and appealing meals.
“I think any time you source things locally, it’s going to be better,” said Ken Watt, executive chef at Practicum Properties for Johnson & Wales University. “It’s going to have less shipping damage. The flavors are going to be better.” Watt has long advocated for socially responsible foodservice, helping establish the school’s sustainable practices.
Ingredients sourced locally by universities include fruits, vegetables, meat, fish, dairy, eggs and honey. Prepared items like breads, pastries, chocolates and beverages often come from regional companies, also. When foods cannot be produced in our area, some dining programs try purchasing them through local distributors.
“A big part of [local sourcing] is being smart and thoughtful,” said Ginnie Dunleavy, director of dining services for the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD).
Beyond nourishing hungry students, Dunleavy explained, local purchasing fulfills part of RISD’s educational mission. “I really believe the difference for us is using a holistic approach to local—that thought of, ‘If it’s an ingredient, where is it coming from?’” she said. “It’s like a puzzle. We use every avenue.”
James Gubata, general manager for Bon Appétit Management Company at Roger Williams University, expressed similar sentiments. “[Our local initiative] starts from our philosophy of serving delicious, fresh food and trying to do it in an environmentally friendly way,” he said. According to Gubata, Bon Appétit demands the highest-quality ingredients, which often are only available locally. Due in part to Rhode Island’s homegrown foods, Roger Williams’s satisfaction scores ranked third in a 2009 survey of 267 dining halls nationwide.
The university’s sustainable foodservice has done more than boost the kitchen’s approval ratings. Student organizations are now interested in farmers’ markets and an on-campus garden. Gubata is excited to see students using their education to become involved in all aspects of a socially responsible food system.
Looking back, Rhode Island’s movement to source university meals locally sprang from student activism. When Dunleavy was working at Brown University, she received repeated student demands for fair-trade coffee. That expense proved unmanageable at the time so the dining program introduced local foods as a more feasible element of social responsibility.
Associate Manager Peter Rossi said the response was overwhelming: Students immediately commented about the produce’s quality and the consumption of fresh apples tripled or quadrupled the first week they were served.
Since Brown instituted its Community Harvest program for sustainable food purchasing in 2002, the local movement has spread to all our state’s university dining services. The University of Rhode Island now buys its produce from Roch’s Fresh Foods and consults about 25 specialized vendors in the tri-state area to buy everything from pastas and deli meats to jonnycake mix and Italian ice. Bryant University, Providence College, Rhode Island College and Salve Regina University also adopted policies for procuring available local produce and employing local companies instead of national distributors for basic supplies. These schools mostly serve Calise & Sons bread and Rhody Fresh or Guida’s milk.
Considerations for using local foods in dining programs are numerous and complex but expense usually ranks highest. Steven Sandblom, director of university dining at Johnson & Wales, accepts the increased cost and even encourages his chefs to spend a little extra money on local foods. “There’s money in the budget for quality,” he said. “We need to use it.”
Dunleavy theorizes the money spent transitioning to a locally sourced pantry is soundly invested. Based on her experiences at Brown and RISD, she thinks enrollment in meal plans increases when local foods are used. “Although there is an initial cost, eventually it will pay dividends,” she said.
Prices may also impact meal plan fees but superior quality and social responsibility tend to justify the expenditure. “Our students believe in sustainability and they don’t mind paying a little extra if they’re getting a lot more in sustainability,” Gubata said.
Another obstacle to local sourcing is distribution. Both chefs and farmers have hectic schedules and transportation requires time, especially when buying from several producers. Furthermore, if numerous vehicles begin transporting foods previously delivered by a single corporation’s truck en route to other kitchens, carbon footprints actually increase. To preserve sustainability, Roger Williams “piggybacks” each farm visit onto other errands in the vicinity, maximizing the productivity of every ride.
Alternately, RISD relies on Farm Fresh Rhode Island’s Market Mobile for distribution. This service allows restaurants, schools and retail stores to purchase foods from multiple farms and receive everything in one delivery. The Market Mobile streamlined RISD’s purchasing and the school has generated steady revenue for the budding delivery system.
Aside from sustainability, supporting the region’s businesses remains a predominant inspiration for local sourcing. “It still has a tremendous amount to do with helping the local farmer,” Rossi said. Brown’s dining staff has built personal relationships with the staffs of the farms they frequent; Rossi feels this rapport is critical to his program’s success.
Arthur Mello of Mello Farm Stand in Portsmouth sells wholesale to Brown. Roger Williams also buys from his stand. “It’s impacted my business tremendously,” Mello said, noting his income increased since receiving steady orders from universities. He particularly values Brown’s off-season purchases of honey, which contribute year-round revenue. “I’m beginning to be comfortable with [university purchasing] as part of my base income,” he said.
If Mello reflects the sentiments of all local farmers, our universities’ dedication is paying off. He summarized the importance of their efforts:
“The number one key to staying in business is having someone buy your product.” eR
Nikki Batsford earned her bachelor’s degree in pastry arts from Johnson & Wales University. She received a New England Press Association award for business/economic reporting and enjoys writing about Rhode Island’s culinary scene.