At Sterling College, food isn’t left up to the administration. Students are involved in every aspects of what they eat. All students have to work at the school during their time as students, and many put in their hours in the school’s farm and kitchen. A passion for agriculture and “real food” comes naturally to the students whose majors range from ecology to outdoor education and sustainable agriculture. Perhaps this is why the Vermont-based college is ranked highest in the Real Food Challenge.
The Real Food Challenge is a student-led initiative with the goal of shifting university food budgets away from industrial farms and junk food and toward local, fair, ecologically sound and humane food sources—what the group calls “real food.” The Challenge encourages schools to pledge to increase the amount of “real food” served on campus by 2020.
Sterling College found 76 percent of its school food was “real food,” up from 73 percent the year before. The next-highest ranking institution is Antioch in Ohio, with 34 percent real food. At Antioch students are also heavily involved in growing and sourcing their food.
“Sterling signed up for the Real Food Challenge because it was a great opportunity to use methods currently in use to look at food sources, and would enable the college to look more closely at our food system and talk about it with precision and clarity,” says Christian Feuerstein, director of communications. “Sterling College looks at the entire food system, from seedling to compost, and the Real Food Challenge was a helpful tool in tracking our food choices.”
The school also prides itself on obtaining 20 percent of its food from the campus farm, the Rian Fried Center for Sustainable Agriculture & Food Systems. The farm grows a wide variety of vegetables, in addition to some fruits. Pigs, cows, turkeys, chickens, lambs and other animals are also raised on the 130 acres of farm and garden.
"Everyone is involved in creating the sustenance that supports us,” says Gwyneth Harris, farm manager.
Sterling is one of seven work colleges as designated by the federal government. All of the students work—regardless of financial aid needs—which is different than the Federal Work Study. “The result is a lot of work gets done on our campus, so if you think of a little over 100 students working about 80 hours each per semester, there’s an awful lot of work that gets done through that program,” Harris says. This work helps pay for their tuition as well as keeps overhead costs low.
“We actually utilized the work program to gather the data [for the Real Food Challenge] to show them what we were doing,” Harris says.
The work doesn’t end at the farm. The kitchen and farm staffs sit down in the winter to coordinate what the farm will grow to feed the students and faculty for the next year.
“Sometimes we have courses that require special crops. For example, we have a fermentation intensive coming up, so I’m growing some radishes that they will use in fermentation,” Harris says. “We’re nimble enough being small and being in direct communication with both the faculty and the kitchen, we can serve the needs of those different groups.”
Shade-grown coffee boosts employment
The school works with other producers, many in the area and some are even Sterling graduates, to obtain items like vegetable oils, flour, dairy and meats. It also works with Green Mountain Farm Direct, a company that acts “as a clearinghouse for local producers. Their main aim is to get local food into institutions,” Harris says. While crunching the numbers for the Real Food Challenge, Sterling discovered it serves 54 percent local food, or food that comes from either large farms within a 150-mile radius of campus or small farms within a 250-mile radius.
“I think with both the relationship between the kitchen and our farm and the kitchen and other farms, the key is that we have a lot of direct communication,” Harris adds.
That kind of direct communication also happens between staff and students, particularly when discussing new food options. One item that the school can’t source locally is coffee. And like most campuses, Sterling goes through a lot of coffee. Before deciding on a coffee to serve, students discussed the benefits of shade-grown coffee and how many jobs would be provided in the area by using a local roaster. The students taste tested many options.
All of these efforts for local, quality food end in the kitchen, with Simeon Bittman, executive chef. “The kitchen at Sterling is different from any kitchen I’ve worked at in my career,” he said in a statement. “We produce meals for every dietary need on campus—vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free, and all delicious.”
Dishes range from banh mi sandwiches to lo mein with vegetables and pork belly from the school farm. Sterling also serves classic comfort dishes, like burgers and hand-cut fries; only here the meat and potatoes are local. There is usually one main dish prepared for each meal with options for a salad or a “simple choice,” often greens, rice and soup. The dining room has an awareness board that lists allergens included in dishes.
Harris admits that there aren’t a lot of options for students, but that’s part of what makes Sterling special. “I think what we do really well is we provide choices for the students in a way that is pretty unique,” she says. “Whereas any other school might be trying to just provide everything that students want, we are trying to provide students with the information about the choices we are making, so they can get behind our decisions.”