The Farmer and Your Table

Sourcing and serving produce straight from the farm is no longer a fad or even a trend. Consider it a movement, 30 years in the making, that has firmly taken root and is now blossoming from coast to coast.

Farm-to-table (or -school, -hospital or -college) programs are all about local, seasonal and sustainable—and organic, where available. Costs may be a bit more than those of products purchased through traditional distribution channels, when you take in-house labor costs into consideration. But, for a growing number of non-commercial operators, buying directly from the grower creates a win-win scenario in which they’re supporting the local economy.

They’re also providing customers with the “just picked” flavors that may, in fact, encourage them to eat more fruits and vegetables. Plus, few operators have to go it alone in their effort to establish links with farmers or growers, since regional and state growers co-ops can identify local sources.

Making commitments: Operators are making it known to their clients, customers and chefs that menuing locally grown and certified organic products (be they produce, meats or dairy), where available and affordable, is part of their mission. For example, Bon Appetit Management Company, a trail blazer in partnering with local farmers through its Farm to Fork program, the Chez Panisse Foundation, and in its efforts to promote sustainability, also leads the way in educating its customers on the issues.

As part of its Circle of Responsibility program, Bon Appetit has created an information board for each account with brochures detailing its commitment in the areas of the environment, community and well-being. Icons throughout its cafes also highlight menu items that are organic, vegan, lowfat, made with ingredients purchased from local farmers, or in accordance with the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s guidelines for sustainable seafood.

Sam Currie, Bon Appetit’s district manager in the Northwest, admits there are some challenges but feels they’re hardly insurmountable. “Some­times it costs a bit more money, but we’re committed to these things,” he states. “As volume increases, prices will moderate—the differences aren’t as significant as one might think and, since we’re using things at the peak of season, prices tend to be better. We write menus weekly, based on what’s available. We source the product first, then write the menu.”

Both Bon Appetit and Sodexho have forged relationships with the Food Alliance, the Portland, Ore.–based non-profit organization that has established criteria for food growing practices and certifies farmers and growers to indicate that their crops are grown in a socially responsible way.

Seeking balance: Just last September, Sodexho launched its Balance Mind, Body, Soul program that, in part, encourages chefs to source and use locally grown and certified product.

“In Oregon, we’re promoting products raised in that area and that are available at specific times of the year,” says Jeff Pente, Sodexho’s senior director of culinary development and systems. “For example, now we’re doing a promo focusing on using hazelnuts in baking cookies. We’ve also featured a stand in the dining rooms that profiles the food, the farmer and that specific part of the country.”

For Cura Hospitality, Inc., part of Parkhurst Dining Services, farm-to-table is a concept it wholeheartedly embraces for its senior residence accounts. Through its FarmSource program, at least 20% of food is purchased from local farmer/grower cooperatives as well as other producers based in the communities it serves.

Finding good sources: With input from organizations such as the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA), of which Cura is a member, FarmSource identifies and profiles approved produce purveyors, dairy farms and distributors, suppliers of meat products and manufacturers that use 60% of raw product that is grown and harvested within the Northeastern part of the country. This information, including detailed maps featuring farm and grower locations in Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland, is available to all Cura foodservice directors.

“Only suppliers and growers that follow the high standards set by the local health departments, the state Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration and other regulatory agencies are used,” says Cura purchasing manager Jamie Moore.

Naturally enough, the program was conceived to benefit and satisfy its senior clientele. Cura sees other benefits as well: “Local agriculture can also be sustainable far into the future if organizations such as ours keep our purchasing dollars in our local communities,” contends Mitch Possinger, president.

At Sherwood Oaks Retirement Community, a Cura account in Cranberry, Penn., the approximately 300 residents can visit the Corner Market twice a week to purchase seasonal FarmSource products to take back to their apartments. “Our meal plan includes one meal a day for those in independent living, so many prepare their own meals,” notes general manager Cheryl Torre.

“They like to know where their produce is coming from and Cura provides that information. According to state regulations, we can’t go to farmers markets, so Cura makes sure they’re approved and local. Produce costs about the same with only a minimal mark-up to cover our costs if we have to package it,” she adds.

One corner of a café now under renovation will be devoted to the market seven days a week. “We’re increasing the number of days because residents want more choices and it’s another way for them to stay connected with their community,” Torre asserts. “This is their home and they want to support local enterprise.”

Ballpark pitch: Think stadium food and you’re not likely to think locally grown and/or organically raised produce. But Sportservice, a division of Delaware North Companies, is making a pitch to change that perception.

Chef Rolf Baumann, CEC, Sport­service’s corporate executive chef, along with other division chefs, recently spent a week at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in St. Helena, Calf., focusing on organic and sustainable menus. In early April he was on the road traveling from city to city for baseball season’s opening day activities at the 18 accounts he covers and “creating what they need” for high-profile events catered by Sportservice’s Well Bread program.

“Fortunately for us, our fans are well-versed in fresh foods from herbs to poultry, and enthusiastic in supporting the local community of farmers and growers,” Baumann reports. “Generally, we say ‘all natural’ rather than ‘organic,’ although our organic items are starting to take off. We have to back them up with a certificate that states that this item is organic today—but perhaps the particular item, tomatoes for example, that we served yesterday wasn’t organic. That’s why we usually say ‘all natural.’”

He adds that Sportservice uses certified organic bratwurst, chicken and hot dogs, and the price for them is comparable to kosher dogs.

In stadium suites and clubs, Baumann is menuing more creative fare featuring locally grown product beyond the usual fresh fruit and crudite platters. At Petco Park in San Diego (home of the Padres), for example, visitors can order a Napa Valley wrap of criminis, portabella, zucchini, grape tomatoes and onions, some of which are organic if available. The roasted, match-stick cut vegetables are folded into a vegetable dip then spread on and rolled inside an organic tomato, pepper or spinach tortilla. Also on the menu—as an in-seat item for fans in any section—is pesto chicken with pasta utilizing an organic grilled chicken breast.

“I direct my executive chefs to contact local growers,” Baumann says. “Delaware North does the research at headquarters in Buffalo to make sure the protein—chicken, pork, beef, etc. —is organic. We have a special ‘organic’ person there to whom we funnel the information.

The organic myth: “Pricing is fine since these growers want the business and no one will buy as much as we will,” he adds. “When people say organic is priced too high, it’s a myth at this time. In fact, 90% of our chefs don’t buy produce from a large vendor. In the past two years, our chefs and our company have pushed to support the local communities. It makes political sense to do it since they (the local producers) bring people to the ballgame.

But it’s all about food—and using locally grown (instead of conventionally procured items) is like night and day.”

Doug Wubben is a vegetable grower now serving as project coordinator for the Wisconsin Home Grown Lunch program and its farm-to-school project. Begun about two-and-a-half years ago and sponsored by the University of Wisconsin’s Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems, the farm-to-school project aims to offer fresh produce in the Madison Metropolitan School District.

As Wubben soon discovered, the district was receptive to the project but very limited in dollars. It also lacked processing capability although the district’s central kitchen packages 15,000 lunches per day and baked goods are produced in its central bakery.

Wubben and his cohorts identified three elementary schools as pilots and focused their menu-related experiments on them. Eventually, officials developed several different lunches including a vegetable fajita wrap consisting of chopped spinach, shredded red cabbage, carrots and turnips, all locally grown. Students made their own wrap from these vegetables by mixing them in a yogurt cream sauce then rolling them in a flour tortilla. The meal also included a small fresh apple from a local orchard plus a sweet potato muffin.

Further processing: “One day last fall, that meal was served district-wide to about 7,200 students in 31 elementary schools,” Wubben reports. “We’ve learned that with a centralized kitchen, once you find what works you can have a greater impact in getting those items to more kids. From a farm product cost, fresh and local is affordable, but not from a labor cost standpoint.

“We delivered whole carrots, cabbages and other produce that needed to be cleaned and processed,” he continues. “For another menu item we developed baked potatoes—from a northern Wisconsin farm—with a chili topping that includes locally grown onions and peppers. The kitchen staff cleaned, cooked, peeled and mashed about 400 pounds of sweet potatoes. This was way above and beyond what they ordinarily do. We obviously need to find a way to have it washed, diced, sliced, etc.”

Currently, Wubben is evaluating what is affordable. He believes the use of organic produce will be a now-and-then thing in this district because of cost, but locally grown will be more consistently utilized. “The product costs are in line—approximately 70¢ per meal which is about the cost of the school district’s average lunch. That was just product and packaging but didn’t include the labor for prepping the fresh produce,” he admits.

Four years ago, when Sandy Donahue became Unity (Maine) College’s director of dining services, she was given a mandate to increase the usage of the school’s half-acre community garden. So she put together a passionate student group that composts all foodservice waste, plus two (paid) students work the garden through the summer.

“We use everything they’ll give us,” Donahue reports. “In the spring, students work in the hoop house, a freestanding structure without heat that was erected last year by students in the landscaping program. Baby produce is started in the ground under a plastic, hut-like structure. By late fall we had quite a bit of spinach for the salad bar and they intend to grow lettuce as well.”

Through the summer and fall, students work in the organic garden. Donahue requires them to clean the produce well and to strip the plants, such as basil, since she needs it in leaf form but doesn’t have the labor to do it. “Most of the basil is used for pesto,” she says. “We go through about six gallons a year. We mix it with olive oil and garlic, then blend it and freeze it to use as needed. Depending on what they grow, we might have onions, leek, garlic, winter and summer squash and even cherry tomatoes.”

Donahue also deals with a local distributor who has established Farm Fresh Connection, a consortium of local producers. From this group she can purchase local and/or organically produced ground beef, cider, eggs, smoked gouda, dried beans, apples and tomatoes.

To get the word out that the majority of the produce at Unity is now local or organic, Donahue tapes signs to the sneeze guards in the servery indicating the farm of origin, or, when applicable, “from our very own hoop house.”

Going out for crew: Students who go out for crew know they’ll be spending lots of back breaking hours rowing on a river. Students who go out for Harvest Crew, on the other hand, will spend lots of hours on a Saturday picking local crops as part of Brown University Dining’s Community Harvest Farm to College program.

No medals await these crew members, only the grateful smiles of the chefs at this Providence, R.I., Ivy League campus who are evidently happy to receive the hand-picked, sun-ripened heirloom tomatoes or other produce straight from the farm.

These excursions to local farms are led by Louella Hill, Brown’s food systems coordinator, a.k.a., Local Food Ambassador since she’s out lobbying the community and making connections day after day.

“Brown Dining runs Harvest Crew with a number of farms,” Hill explains. “I call the farms ahead of time, then we go out to purchase and pick. We might buy 100 pounds of cherry tomatoes, two cases of edamame or a couple of cases of cantaloupe. It depends on what’s available and if it coordinates with our five-week menu cycle. Syn­chronizing is not always easy, but as part of Community Harvest, one of the ways we develop the program is by figuring out how to create flexible menus.”

At the doorstep: In other efforts to connect Brown Dining with farmers, the department runs a Farmer’s Market every Wednesday with an average of eight trucks gathered outside the main dining hall doors laden with herbs, corn bread mix, honey and more.

Meanwhile, Brown’s executive chef, John O’Shea, CEC, aims to incorporate local produce into many of the approximately 4,000 meals he serves each day. From the vendors parked at his door on Wednesdays, he may purchase fresh basil, tomatoes and fresh cucumbers to use in a summer salad simply dressed with olive oil, salt and pepper.

“I might use eggplant, peppers and zucchini—cleaned, sliced, brushed with olive oil, salt and pepper, and roasted off—to build vegetable stacks so the colors contrast,” he says. “Maybe I’ll add two layers of goat cheese after the vegetables are roasted. We also have a local apple program and I buy hundreds of pounds a week from the orchard, depending upon what’s on the menu.”

Expanding local goals: At Williams College in Geneva, N.Y., dining services is committed to buying local vegetables and fruits when seasonally available; incorporates local honey into recipes; sources all milk consumed on campus from a local, family-owned dairy, purchases pasture-raised beef from a Northeast livestock cooperative, and is replacing a number of commercially made granolas and jams with those produced locally.

As director of dining services for the past three years, Bob Volpi is continuing to do what he does best. “When I arrived at Williams, we joined the Northeast Farmers Growers Associa-tion,” he says. His contacts through the association have made procurement of local products fairly easy. In addition, last year a student intern visited farmers markets and set up a chefs’ guide which identifies what each farm is growing, the approximate time the crop is ready for harvesting, and the contact name at each farm.

“Most farms deliver, but for a big event we’re holding this month, we’ll do local kielbasa and we’ll have to pick it up ourselves,” Volpi says. “It’s about an hour drive each way but it’s worth it because the kielbasa is great. We’re also featuring local picnic fare with local beef patties and close to 200 pounds of shiitake mushrooms.


Watching Their Garden Grow

The Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act of 2004 contains a provision titled “Access to Local Foods and School Gardens,” which authorizes grants for schools to use in setting up purchasing arrangements with local farms. Funds can also be used for menu planning, staff training, special equipment, curriculum design and school gardens.

One problem—to date, Congress has not provided the $5 million the act promises. Yet, many school districts (at least 400 nationwide, according to some reports) aren’t waiting around, and are seizing the day—not to mention the lettuce, spinach and peppers.

First steps: Don Engling, foodservice director for Whitewater (Wis.) Unified Schools, is encouraged by the small steps his district, with an enrollment of 2,000, has recently taken in the farm-to-school movement. “Thanks to a grant submitted by one of the agricultural teachers, we have a hydroponic system and we offer their lettuce on our salad bar every day,” he reports.

“We wash it up and put it out (on the serving line), but with about 650 students in the high school, production can’t keep up with demand. We put up signs stating that this lettuce was grown by the students in the horticultural program of the high school. Tomatoes are the next step.”

Next year, he plans to involve students’ parents in the food-to-school effort. “We’ll talk to the parents of these horticultural students as to what they can grow on their farms for us, since most of the parents of these students are farmers. We could purchase some from our local farmers,” he says, “but there’s not really a (delivery) network (for organic produce) in the Whitewater area. Of course, the real catch is that when their produce is ready, it’s summer and school is closed.”