Opinion: Faculty senate’s leap toward local food

Feb 11 faculty senate
Mitchell Patterson /THE REVIEW
UD has a contract with the Aramark Corporation, a food service company that currently runs the dining halls on campus. Based in Philadelphia, it operates all over the world, from North America to Ireland to the Philippines, and even South Korea.

BY

Christopher Williams, professor of wildlife ecology and president of the faculty senate, was shocked to discover that the vegetables grown organically at the University of Delaware Farm on South Campus were not found in the dining halls of the very same establishment. A local, organic farm, worked on by students and faculty, was not able to sell its vegetables to any of the dining services on campus. If the dining hall wasn’t going to bother with UD’s own farm, it likely wouldn’t bother with any other local farms.

“I was teaching a graduate course with Dr. [Mckay] Jenkins a couple springs ago,” Williams recalls, “and it was on sustainability. It was multi-college. I brought in Ag. and Natural Resources perspective.” Jenkins is an English professor here at the university, particularly interested in writing about food sources. He authored Food Fight, a book about GMOs.

The pivotal moment occurred at the campus farm. Mike Popovitch, a farmer in charge there, gave a background on the organic vegetables grown. They sell them to the public as well as local restaurants, but it was hit or miss with the restaurants, depending on varying demand. “It came up,” Williams continues, “well why aren’t we putting these foods into the dining halls, getting them to the students? [Popovitch] said that’s not in the contract with the food distributor. I said, ‘really?’”

Every year at the end of August, countless teenagers are dropped off outside their dorms at the University of Delaware with little to no knowledge of how to cook and feed themselves. Maybe a portion of them took a cooking class in high school. A few possibly had parents with both the time and ability to cook well. Regardless of a student’s cooking background, most dorms have only one or two kitchens in each building for around 7,000 students, according to Jim Tweedy, the Director of Residence Life and Housing. Though some students are not required to have a meal plan at the dining halls, it’s a reasonable thing to invest in when kitchens and cooking skills are so few, not to mention the social pressures of sitting with friends at dinner.

“I have no idea,” a freshman admitted when asked if she knows where the dining hall food comes from. “I pay for it. It magically appears and disappears…. As long as it’s ethically sourced, it’s fine,” she added. “I assume it is.”

Some students in the dining hall, however, expressed concern about the food’s origins. Environmental studies freshman Hillary says she does care about UD’s effect on climate change. “All that transportation,” she says. “those greenhouse gases being emitted, it’s not good for the environment. I’d be curious to know how much food they have that is local and what’s going into farming the vegetables. I do like knowing what’s in my food.”

The University of Delaware has a contract with the Aramark Corporation, a food service company that currently runs the dining halls on campus. Based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, it operates all over the world, from North America to Ireland to the Philippines, and even South Korea. Aramark operates in its own way, independent of the university or its farm, and organic food wasn’t even on its radar.

“This last year I was the faculty senate president,” Williams explains. “There’s always the possibility we [the faculty senate] can put forth a resolution in front of the senate to say this is something we’d encourage to happen.” And so, they did. The resolution passed about a year ago, last September.

The two goals of this particular resolution were to encourage the administration to renegotiate Aramark for organic food and to promote native plants on STAR Campus. At the time, John Long hadn’t started as executive vice president yet, so the VP at the time suggested they wait until the contract renewal with Aramark.

“That’s all I could do,” Williams says. “Then John [Long] started last spring, and we said to him, ‘we’d love for YOU to pursue this now.’” Long did some digging and reported that they did not have to wait for a contract renewal. They could jump right in.

“He was able to get Aramark to approve this idea,” Williams says, “lots of kudos to him for making this happen.”

John Long, the executive vice president and chief operating officer of the University of Delaware spends most of his time in his office on campus. The vice president is a bald, tough-looking yet gentle man with an air of natural authority.

“In layman’s terms, I ‘run the city.’” he says, explaining what his title means. “I have everything that’s not academic: Police, HR, finance, emergency management, health and safety, IT, economic development, etc.”

“I’ve met with Chris [Williams] a couple of times;” he says, “the big focus was that the faculty senate wanted Aramark to try to use more of the [UD] farm’s produce. I would say it’s moving along.”

Both Williams and Long agreed the concept was a wonderful concept, but realized it was easier said than done.

“In speaking with Aramark, it’s not just as simple to say, ‘give us all your vegetables,’” Long argued, “it’s a capacity problem.”

Most vegetables grow during the summer, a time when most students aren’t on campus, and when students return to campus, the weather grows cool again and there are fewer available crops to feed them with.

“The concept is great,” Long added, “but there’s only so much the farm can produce capacity-wise, with the amount Aramark uses.” Williams agrees that the seasonal variabilities of Delaware made things difficult. He confesses it wasn’t the forefront thought when the idea first came about.

“Aramark is happy to partner,” Long insists. “The compromise they’re thinking of is to have the farm make salsa for the dining halls. You can’t just say ‘we want the farm’s tomatoes in November,’ well there aren’t any tomatoes in November.”

Williams also had a few general ideas about off-season food. He wondered if canning could preserve certain vegetables into the winter. He emphasized that in order to make this project work, “we’re going to have to be creative”. Luckily, Long suggests the UD farm does have a few winter vegetables. Williams presented ideas about feeding student athletes in the summer when most of the crops are growing.

“The greenhouses aren’t heated,” reported a student selling UD vegetables at the Natural Foods Farmer’s Market. The greenhouses are covered to trap heat inside, but there is currently no artificial heat pumped inside, so not much grows over the winter.

Winter squash are not grown in the winter (despite their name), though they do keep well through winter because of a thick rind. Other products being sold by the UD farm were carrots, peppers, tomatoes, and zucchini. Peeking out from under the table was a curious box of green spheres. Those were tomatillos, the students said, they’re a less popular product of the farm’s, but are particularly resistant to disease and make excellent salsa.

The dining halls also currently serve ice cream from the UDairy Creamery, and they’re reportedly looking into using cheese made by the creamery to use in feeding students.

John Long is proud of his “big push” this past summer with The Scrounge. He wants to “provide students a place to study along with something to eat, a 24/7 diner. Everybody will take advantage of that, not just the students.” He’s passionate about food availability on campus.

“It’s not Aramark who’s been the delay,” Long says, “it’s also had to move through the College of Agriculture. There are some compliance issues, food and health safety of where the food comes from. It’s well on its way to a solution.”

Long has two colorful flyers prepared by the UD Dining Services specifying dining hall food that comes from local areas, along with a list of local companies and farms they use. “This is just for the week. They produce this weekly. It shows you where the food is coming from. This shows the local bakeries they use for bread and other things, where they support the local economy.”

The first line read:
Richardson Farms – Kale

According to Les Richardson, president of Richardson Farms, Aramark likely bought the kale through one of the two groups in either Philadelphia or Baltimore that buys from the farm—wholesale. “By the time you [students] receive the kale,” he says. “It will have passed through two, three pairs of hands. The kale starts growing on our farm. We get the order in the morning and pick it midday.”

The season for kale at Richardson Farms runs May through December. Other produce they grow includes tomatoes, sweet corn, cucumbers, squash, watermelons, and cantaloupes. There isn’t much that grows over the winter, but Richardson says they begin with the greenhouses in February.

Richardson also explained the farming politics behind organics. “There are no organic farms on the east coast that sell in wholesale,” he says. Wholesale indicates the huge proportions a dining hall needs to feed our sprawling campus. “It’s not possible with the bugs in this climate.” He then goes on to compare organic and non-organic farmers to political parties who disagree on many fronts but are actually much more similar than they want people to believe. “Organic farmers use a lot of the same stuff we do.”

“There’s an organic retail farmer I know who doesn’t have the organic ‘political paperwork’ but his customers trust him.” In retail farming, the relationships can make a big difference in trust. Wholesale, which means they sell their products in bulk, can’t have the same close relationships with their customers.

The next on the list was Vincent Farms – Watermelon. Hayley Keenan, manager of packaging and shipping at Vincent Farms, suggested that the way the dining halls receive its food is likely through Sysco, a corporation that markets and distributes, among other things, food. It provides wholesale food to companies like Aramark and its competitor, Sodexo.

“Our local Delaware watermelon starts growing the first or second week of July and goes into October,” Keenan says. “Our area is not very practical for organic farming—we’re close to the water, there are some diseases that attack the fruit, and I guess we’re old-fashioned.” She brings up a similar argument as Richardson does—that organic farmers still use pesticides, just a different kind. “Just because it’s organic doesn’t mean it’s any better,” she insists.

VP John Long continued to list off sustainable initiatives that the food system is pioneering. “There’s the farmer’s market that they use to support local farmers. They’re trying to do recycling; they’ve done away with plastic straws.”

“It takes two to be a partner,” Long says. “We can’t complain about Aramark not doing what we want if we haven’t asked them to do it yet.”

This seems to be a running theme among both parties, faculty senate and administration, that teamwork is the most productive tactic. The two of them have been working well together. As students on campus might say, Long and Williams “vibe”.

Not only is Long in support of sustainable initiatives, he has a few ideas of his own. “At the university I previously worked at, we actually brought in the farmer. A couple times a semester we’d bring the person who grew your blueberries, your lettuce, your strawberries, and so on. Everybody now does want to know where their food comes from. Whether it’s beef or watermelon or poultry, I’d like to bring some of these local farmers in. I’ve suggested that [for the University of Delaware]”

Unfortunately, this idea was brought up to Richardson, he sighed a bit and said “Honestly, I don’t know how much interest you’ll get from farmers. It’s a busy job. I barely have time to see my family these days.”

Keenan suggested the wintertime would be a better time for farmers to visit the dining halls, as the production slows down. “I’ve done that before, and I’d be interested in coming to UD—if I’m not too busy.”

Has Long ever eaten at a UD dining hall before?

“Absolutely,” he said without hesitation, “I eat at a dining hall every other week. I eat at all of them, lunch or dinner. I’ve been to each one.” He went on to describe different options offered at CR, such as the Kosher section and Vegan section. “I eat a little bit of a lot to see what you guys eat. I want to know what students are eating. We all pay a lot of money at the dining hall, and we ought to get what we’re paying for.”

“I wouldn’t want to speculate,” he continued, “but I imagine prices would be impacted if the dining halls went all local.” He suggested that Aramark might have some price leverage in the market due to the amount of food they purchase. However, as Richardson and Keenan stated, there are very few farms (if any) on the east coast that could provide organic food in the quantities that Aramark needs to supply the dining halls.

“I’m very conscious on price point for students,” Long says. “There are some students that can’t afford to pay more. So how can we balance that with organic prices? They’re working together with the [UD] farm to find solutions.”

When asked about her thoughts on higher prices of organic, local food, environmental studies freshman Hillary replied “Overall, it’s for the best for the students.”

Africana studies and English sophomore Sarah exclaimed, “You’re taking all my money anyway, so you might as well support local farms!”

Of course, there is a portion of students who don’t seem to care too much about where their food is coming from. “As long as it tastes alright, is edible,” bioscience freshman Drew said, then quickly added, “I would hope the animals were treated right, though.”

Then there’s a portion of students who have an idea about what’s going on but are not fully informed. “Doesn’t this all come from local areas?” mechanical engineering freshman Ryan asked. “That’s what I heard.”

According to John Long, there are great strides being taken to improve the locality of the food, but students seem to have mixed information and apathy levels when it comes to the origin of the food.

“I’ve asked Aramark to work with the university communications and marketing area,” Long says, “It’s very easy for everybody to throw rocks at things and complain, it’s very easy to complain that Aramark is ‘no good’ and ‘I don’t like this’ but I think people have very little information and make a very broad general statement about it. People will not hesitate to criticize the things they don’t like…if there’s one thing you do wrong, everyone will know about it.”

He says he wishes the dining halls would promote the good they’re doing. “Do students know that the dining halls have watermelon this week from a farm in Delaware?” Long wonders. “I’m just not sure the message is getting out. Everybody could do a better job spreading the word, [including] the students who are passionate about it. They have a social responsibility to tell the progress that has been made, not just the bad things. I think that’s everyone’s responsibility, not just Aramark’s.”

“We’re not a university that’s doing a good job of promoting sustainability,” admitted Williams. “Not many people know about the sustainability on campus. Replacing air old air conditioners saves the university energy, but that doesn’t look interesting.” He added, “Some universities are going all out for sustainability and proud of it.”

Chris Williams also talks about a sustainability council formed years ago “to think about sustainability issues at the university. For the most part, the whole thing fell apart over the past 3-5 years.” Spurred by the senate resolution about the dining halls, some have started meeting to re-energize the topic of sustainability on campus with the question: “How do we get this ball rolling again?”

Williams says they plan to create a formal new group hosted in the provost’s office and co-chaired by Long and Williams. “Students have to be part of this as well…if we really get the ball rolling, student involvement is great.”

“Apathy is the worst evil we can have,” states Williams. “[It started as] just a few of us in a field talking, and someone said something that didn’t quite make sense. Let’s do something about it!”

Jessica Storm is a senior at the university majoring in meteorology and climatology with a minor in Spanish. She is the president of the university’s chapter of the American Meteorological Society. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect the views of the majority of The Review’s staff. She may be reached at jstxrm@udel.edu.

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