Students Form Local Food Group

By Emilie Munson

This year, the College’s numerous student organizations focusing on food consciousness have joined forces to create a Food Cluster group. Led by College Food and Farm Educator Sophie Esser Calvi ’03, the Food Cluster is a coalition that seeks to promote cooperation among groups such as EatReal, the Middlebury College Organic Farm, Weigh the Waste, Dolci and Weybridge House.

The groups have diverse ideas on how the student body and the College can focus their efforts on improving food culture, ranging from reducing meat consumption, increasing composting and encouraging creative cuisine. Most groups, however, do have a significant amount of overlap, particularly on the subject of local foods.

Jordan Collins ’16, co-president of EatReal and a member of Weybridge House, elaborated on this overlap, explaining that EatReal encourages the administration to promote local, sustainable food while Weybridge House shapes lifestyles around local and sustainable food philosophies.

The goal of the Food Cluster, according to Calvi, is to help student groups recognize their commonalities and join forces in order to make greater change.

Natalie Valentin ’15, a Campus Sustainability Coordinator (CSC) and liaison to dining services, has been working on developing, promoting and expanding the Food Cluster.

“Up until this year, there have been a lot of different food conversations happening across campus, but people have been working on the same things,” Valentin said. “Having the Food Cluster allows us to look at what our mutual goals are and also look at what each individual group’s best capacity [for creating change] is.”

Thus far, groups such as EatReal and the Middlebury College Organic Farm, in conjunction with the CSC’s food focus group, have united to encourage participation in the Real Food Challenge. The Real Food Challenge is a movement that strives for colleges and universities to pledge to buy at least 20 percent “real food” — defined by the organization as local, fair, humane or ecological — by 2020.

Members of the Environmental Council Food Committee, CSCs and EatReal, united through the Food Cluster, are working with Dining Services to create a Winter Term internship to use the challenge’s “Real Food Calculator” to audit dining purchases and find areas where the College can bring in more local foods.

In spite of the change they seek, both Valentin and Esser Calvi applaud Dining Services’ efforts to bring local foods to the College.

“Dining Services has had a commitment to local and responsible purchasing for a long time,” Valentin said. “That is something they have already been doing, and now with the growing student interest, they are looking to do more.”

Executive Chef of Dining Services Robert Cleveland offered insight into the complex decisions that Dining Services faces in choosing where to purchase foods.

“We don’t need to be convinced [of the benefits of buying locally]; we are trying to figure out how to navigate in a complex food supply system that must weigh in the balance our wants and needs with our fiscal and ethical responsibilities,” he said.

Dining Services  has been working with vendors for as long as 65 years to bring foods grown or processed from within a 250-mile radius to the College. Currently, 47 Vermont food producers, including Monument Farms, Vermont Highland Beef, Champlain Orchards and Middlebury College Organic Farm, provide goods to the College. Approximately 20 percent of the food served in the dining halls is local.

Buying local reduces the distance food must be transported, thereby reducing fossil fuel consumption and working to support the College’s mission to be carbon neutral by 2016, a benefit that Dining Services recognizes and aims to expand upon. Additionally, local foods support regional economies and maximize the freshness and nutritional value of food.

Cleveland has seen how the College’s efforts to buy local have helped the community first-hand.

“We regularly host matchmaker events that bring together local farmers with local buyers beside ourselves, and we have seen them increase production in some instances when they know that we will buy large quantities of product at competitive prices,” Cleveland said. “Due to our volume purchasing position, we have been able to take the balance of a farmer’s entire crop that might not have lasted at their farm stand.”

Cleveland and other Dining Services administrators welcome the increased student dialogue, input and feedback surrounding their buying practices, but face difficulties in balancing the dining budget, student needs and a desire to buy local.

Dining Services must serve approximately 7,000 meals per day to students with diverse dietary needs, restrictions and preferences. Local vendors, constrained by the scale of their operations and the Vermont growing season, cannot always meet the College’s high-volume demand. Furthermore, the price of local products is often higher than that of conventional products because supply is smaller.

The Student Government Association (SGA) Environmental Affairs Committee seeks to help Dining Services find balance between the student body and Food Cluster, ensuring that all voices are heard despite the limitations of the budget.

To gauge student opinion, the SGA plans to conduct a survey to determine why students want local food and what they might be willing to sacrifice for more sustainable foods.

The SGA, in collaboration with the Food Cluster, will use the data in combination with an evaluation of Dining Services’ spending to produce a series of specific recommendations on how Dining Services can find room in its budget to bring in more local food.

“If we send out a recommendation that says we want 70 percent of the food to be sustainable, organic and ethically-sourced by next year, that’s not possible,” SGA Director of Environmental Affairs Jake Nonweiler ’14 said. “We want to find out what is possible.”

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