Joshua Viertel, director of the Sustainable Food Initiative at Yale, procures produce from a community garden in New Haven.©Michael Marsland/Yale University
Nine months into its transformative program, Yale’s Berkeley College manages to get about half its produce from regional suppliers (compared to 20 percent in the other dining halls). Viertel notes that the $6.5 million Yale spends annually on food for undergraduates could help sustain farms in a state that loses more than 8,000 acres of cropland each year. "We cast our vote three times a day," he says.
The pilot program at Yale faces a major obstacle: food costs under the new regime run about 50 percent higher than those for conventional meals. That gap is now bridged by a grant from an anonymous donor.
At Oberlin College in Ohio, 1993 graduate Brad Masi tells the story of how he and fellow students succeeded in redirecting college dining money into northeastern Ohio. It began in 1990, when some of the 650 co-op housing students, who run their own kitchens, decided to buy more local food. That first year, they managed to spend $10,000 locally. By 2002-2003, the co-ops and the college dining service together spent $225,000 of a $2.84 million annual food budget locally. "We felt like we actually impacted the local economy, and reduced the fossil fuel involved in hauling all that food from 1,300 miles away," says Masi.
Oberlin’s food waste goes back into the soil at a three-acre organic garden a mile off campus, at the college’s 70-acre George Jones Farm, which Masi now manages. Kitchen grease can be converted into biodiesel using a bike-powered processor that Oberlin junior Sam Merrett designed and built. Masi hopes to use biodiesel to fuel the farm’s tractor.
Masi feels encouraged by his work. "When I was a student taking environmental courses, I started to get a sense that humans were parasites, spreading over the Earth, depleting and polluting." Now, working out of a farm office built of local clay, straw and timber, he believes that careful land use can revitalize ecosystems while providing food, energy and shelter.
Buying locally is business as usual if you live in Vermont, says Matthew Biette, director of dining services at Middlebury College, a liberal arts school with 2,667 students. "This is the culture of Vermont." Middlebury depends on local sources for about a quarter of its food, not only produce but sausage, venison, turkey, pasta, bread, ice cream and chocolate. The dining service grows its own salad greens in a greenhouse heated both by the sun and by radiant heat tubes that are warmed by rotting compost.
Hormone-free milk comes from Monument Farms Dairy down the road, which Middlebury has patronized for more than 50 years. "What they milk this afternoon hits our tables in the morning," says Biette.
While buying food locally does not cost Biette extra, fair trade coffee does. The requisite 10,000 pounds of beans cost him a third more for fair trade, or an extra $20,000 annually. So Biette made a deal with students who requested the coffee: Reduce waste in the dining hall and the money saved can go toward coffee. So far, says Biette, it’s working.
Stanford University dining services director Nadeem Siddiqui is developing his sustainable dining program cautiously. "I’ve seen organic programs fail because financially they can’t support themselves," he says.
The university buys two to five percent of its food from regional farms, including the Agricultural and Land-Based Training Association, a 110-acre organic teaching farm about two hours south in Salinas. Marketing director Dina Izzo sends e-mails to seven Stanford chefs telling them which fruits and vegetables are ready for harvest, takes orders, then delivers them the next day.
Saddiqui has already told the university’s big supplier, U.S. Foods, that he won’t buy chicken from Tyson Foods because of its labor record. Having grown up in Pakistan, where meals provided occasions for leisurely conversation, he sees good food as a means of recapturing societal integrity.
A slower pace is already apparent at Yale, says English lecturer Margaret Spillane. "The difference is in the atmosphere. There is a much more focused, settled feeling to the dining hall. People are actually dining rather than just chowing down." Sophomore Laura Hess appreciates the chance to eat sustainably. "The fact that I can go and eat really good food with my friends has really changed my life—and made me feel more grounded."