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A New Focus on Sustainability

A New Focus on Sustainability

SUSTAINABLE, AND THE LIVING IS EASY. A summer farmers' market hosted by Bon Appètit Management Company for the employees of one of its accounts.

Inserts show posters and fact sheets that are available from help to promote local purchasing.

Sustainability— a term seldom used until recently in noncommercial foodservice— is as much about business as it is about the freshness of sourced food ingredients.

Sustainability as a food " movement" includes many strategies, from agricultural practices to seed diversity. But the local sourcing of fresh produce, meat, dairy, and eggs is one approach that is often feasible for operators. When it is, it has become a popular trend among many chefs and on many school campuses.

Among other reasons, local sourcing is seen as environmentally friendly, helps college operators in particular address "town & gown" concerns by supporting the local community, and appeals to younger, socially conscious customers.

In the view of many, both 'farm to college' and 'farm to school' programs help to preserve-America's ever-decreasing farmlands.

"One of the biggest issues facing the farmland in this area is urban sprawl," says Sandy Van Houten, RD, child nutrition services director for Ventura (CA)Unified School District. "It's overtaking some of the best strawberry land in the world and forcing farmers to give up their business. But when we purchase in large quantities from local farmers, they find a steady market and revenue stream that helps keep them in business."

Fresh Focus
With their large volume orders, schools and colleges clearly have potential for supporting local food providers. Some small farms on the verge of extinction have said that such opportunities can make the difference in their very survival.

"There was one local family farm that was about to give up," says Van Houten. "We came in and offered them the opportunity to sell to us, since then they've improved and expanded their farm. Today, they are selling to other schools and universities in the area as well."

Buying locally also decreases the distance food must travel. In doing so, proponents note that it reduces carbon dioxide emissions from trucking, needs fewer preservatives and requires less packaging materials. They also believe such products are more healthful and fresher when served.

"A study by The Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture says that under the conventional system many food items travel an average of 1500 miles from where they are grown to where they are purchased," says Mark Petrino, associate director of dining services at Williams College in Williamstown, MA.

"We pride ourselves on the idea of actually knowing where our food comes from and how it is treated before our students consume it. We feel that by putting our land to work, the College is being a good neighbor to farmers in the region, obtaining the healthiest nutritious food while teaching the students to be responsible stewards of the environment."

Adds Van Houten,"being a dietitian, a mom, and having worked for 20 years in healthcare foodservice, I knew that if we didn't restructure our dining choices with more fresh produce, we would only contribute to the obesity crisis," she says.

Van Houten started the healthy schools project three years ago by educating kids and parents in healthful eating habits. "Our timing was really good," she says. "We engaged the community and are now working with 40 local farms." She has established a successful "farm-to-school salad bar" in 19 of her schools and plans to have the program in all 24 by the end of the year.

When foodservice directors who would like to use more local produce have difficulties in starting the process, state agriculture departments have sometimes stepped in to help. In Massachusetts, a program called "Get Fresh, Get Local" matches farmers to schools while promoting business and distribution of local products. The program includes school districts in Belchertown, Hudson, Maynard, Middleboro and Worcester. It is funded by a $40,000 grant from the Massachusetts School Foodservice Association.

Continuing challenges "Sustainability is most popular in places with access to decent sized farms," says Tom Mac-Dermott, president of the Clarion Group in Kingston, NH. "It is more practical in the South and in California where growing seasons overlap the academic year, as opposed to the Northeast, where the growing season is shorter and ends when school begins," he adds.

Although some operators have found local sourcing in this way to be more costly than traditional methods, that isn't always the case.

"We found it was really no more expensive," says Grayce DiCenzo, food and nutrition director at Hudson (MA) Schools. Hudson is a member of the "Get Fresh, Get Local" program. "We negotiate with the farmers directly and because they are local, we don't need to store anything."

Noncommercial interest in sustainability also shows a shift in how foodservice directors think about the foods they serve. For colleges and universities, serving high-quality meals as part of the residential community lifestyle has become a more important part of the recruiting package, and they've found that local sourcing can appeal to the expectations of potential students and their parents.

Tufts University, Cornell University, Vassar College, Middlebury-College, the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Ohio University and the University of Northern Iowa are among other colleges committed to buying as much as they can from local farmers.

Sustainability doesn't end with schools and universities. Senior living facilities, ballparks, prisons, national parks and even healthcare programs have expressed interest in involving local farmers in their operations.

The goals are simple. Offer food locally grown and organic, develop educated and healthful eating habits, and increase the number of farms as well as the economic viability of existing farms.

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