According to the Community Alliance With Family Farmers, based in
Davis, CA, farmers get 9 cents of every dollar of supermarket produce
purchases, compared to about 10 times that for purchases made locally
by foodservice operators. It's that sort of support that Bon Appetit Management Company aims to create and sustain in communities around the country, both with its ongoing Farm-to-Table and annual Eat Local Challenge initiatives. Additional goals: improve taste and quality of what's served, reduce potential for tampering of foods transported long distances, and reduce packaging costs, among others.
On October 3, more than 200,000 customers in 29 states dined on locally grown and raised produce and other foodstuffs when 400 cafes run by Bon Appetit participated in the company's second annual Eat Local Challenge luncheon. The effort also aimed to emphasize the greater importance of eating "local" as opposed to eating "organic," since "organic" products may actually be grown far away from where they're served and its definition is often open to interpretation.
Following are close looks at just two Bon Appetit-run operations on the East Coast that staged their own Eat Local Challenges, visited by FSD editors.
St. Joseph Gets History Lesson
West Hartford, Conn. St. Joseph College held its Eat Local Challenge in the recently renovated dining area at McGovern Hall, giving the foodservice crew the ability to show off its exhibition cooking station as well as its love of local foods.
The featured entree this day at the cook-to-order station, called Global, was lemon sole, dredged in flour and sauteed to order by chef Patrick Wilson.
Sole choice: "The sole costs a couple dollars more a pound than we would like to spend," says Richard Frost, foodservice director for Bon Appetit at the 1,200-student women's college. "Last year we featured beef on the menu, but this year we waited too long to place our order and most of the local beef and poultry is gone."
The slight procurement glitch was a boon to 200 or so diners who came to McGovern for lunch. Although some students were seen turning up their noses at the fish, Chef Wilson did a brisk business at the Global station, with as many as 15 people at a time waiting patiently in line.
For non-fish lovers, however, there were plenty of other locally grown or produced choices on the menu. Among the items for sale displayed at the servery's various stations were:
-Yukon Gold potatoes.
-Green beans, peppers, zucchini and spaghetti squash.
-Apple crisp made with Braeburn, Macoun and Cortland apples.
-Butternut apple bisque.
-Apple cider and black currant juice.
-Pasta made by a local artisanal producer.
Signs at the stations identified what farms or producers supplied the items, and a map in the cafeteria showed St. Joseph's purchasing range for the Challenge.
Nine-state scope: "The 150-mile radius actually gave us quite a wide area to purchase from," notes Derek Roy, Bon Appetit's executive chef at the account. "We could go out (east) to Cape Cod and west to Scranton, Penn. The area covers most of Vermont and New Hampshire, all of the Hudson Valley, and south to Philadelphia." He adds, however, that the goal was to use as many Connecticut sources as possible.
Roy is a recent addition to the St. Joseph staff, coming to Bon Appetit from a Litchfield, Conn., restaurant. He called the Eat Local Challenge "very exciting, one of the selling points of the job," along with the work schedule, which he says is more conducive to family life.
Student response: Among the early diners was Beth Moshier, a graduate student at the college. "I think it's a great idea," she says of the Challenge. As for her choice of lunch entree, she adds that it really didn't matter: "They always have good food here."
Frost says there are 320 students on the meal plan, with another 700 to 800 commuting students who can come to the dining hall and pay cash. "We also get at least 10 faculty members who are regulars for lunch," he adds.
Stephanie Mansfield, a sophomore from nearby Newington, says she only eats at McGovern "a couple of times a semester," but came this day "because the food smelled good."
Mansfield says she knew about the Eat Local Challenge, which Bon Appetit had advertised through the campus Web site and table tents in the dining room, and she's in favor of buying locally. "It makes me feel good knowing that the food's fresher," she notes.
Making do: Chef Roy explains that the Eat Local Challenge was a learning experience for him. "A lot of the things that we cook with, like sugar, salt, black pepper and flour, are things we take for granted," he points out. Although salt and pepper were "grandfathered in" to the menu, and local mills could be found for flour and oats, sugar was verboten. As a result, the topping for the apple crisp was made with Vermont maple syrup instead of sugar. The result was a less crumbly, but chewier, topping.
"It's kind of like a history lesson," Frost adds, "seeing what it was like to get ingredients 100 or 150 years ago."
Even as the lunch was still winding down, Roy already was looking forward to next year's event. "During the year, we already serve a lot of items that come from local farms," he notes.
Washington. For American University, local sourcing for foodservice isn't limited to the annual Eat Local Challenge.
The Bon Appetit team there serves about 3,000 meals a day to residents; its non-mandatory meal plan experienced 93% participation last school year. Menus at Terrace Dining Room, where the Eat Local Challenge was staged, are driven by seasonality.
Executive chef David Black purchases locally twice a week. His list of local growers has been steadily increasing as he and Yvonne Matteson, resident district manager, network with managers and chefs from other Bon Appetit accounts in the area, such as Georgetown Law School and Gallaudet Univ., both in Washington, and Gouch-er College in Baltimore.
Their objective is not only to increase selections and the quantity available, but also to make local purchasing more affordable, and that's probably the single greatest challenge. "You're looking at a 50% increase in food cost (for the Eat Local luncheon menu) versus purchasing through our regular vendors," Black asserts.
Crop sharing: "It doesn't come cheaply, but wait until you taste it. We'd like to give farmers a gauge as to how much we'd use, along with the other (Bon Appetit) accounts in the area. If we're able to source from someone, we can share with the others. We'd like to get together for group purchasing of items like melons and apples in season. I'd like to be able to say they can supply us all for centralized delivery."
For her part, Matteson views the higher prices paid for from-the-farm product simply as "a commitment we make, and we have to make it work." She also knows her students and, although "they've really responded well and like anything that connects them to the provider," she hears their demands for local products, even if only during the one day of the Eat Local 2006 luncheon.
"We can't take away everything when we do this program," she says. "We have to have 'local' plus 'normal.' We learned they were concerned that we wouldn't have the usual options like pizza, so of course it's menued."
Last August, in preparation for writing the Eat Local luncheon menu, Black conferred with the growers he'd been working with over the past year. All the items he eventually menued he had prepared before, but his one major adaptation was in replacing store-bought yeast with a naturally airborne yeast culture he started two weeks in advance for his sourdough bread.
"Also, instead of the mix I usually purchase, I made my own field greens mix for the salad bar from curly endive, tato soi (a.k.a. Chinese spinach) and arugula," he says. "I would have liked to have gotten seawater and reduced it to use as a natural salt for flavoring, but I didn't get to.
"I guess the only procurement challenge I had was having to go to Baltimore to pick up the fresh pasta made there," he continues. "We're very fortunate in this area that so much is readily available." The only item that had been menued but was not available at the last minute was wax beans. Green beans were served instead.
Potatoes to apples: Cost-wise, it's the locally grown produce, at least at this point in time, that strains the budget, he says. Red skin potatoes, for example, usually cost Black 10 cents a pound, but the locally grown blue potatoes that he menued in October came with a hefty $2.50 per pound price tag. "The flip side is that apples typically run me $38 to $39 a case from my mainline vendor," he reports, "but local apples were only $22 per case last month."
Throughout the year, small signs at the various stations identify the farms or other source of local items. For the Eat Local event, signs were posted on walls and columns throughout the dining room two weeks prior to the event, with small signs on each table. In addition, Matteson and Black make themselves highly visible at mealtime, taking the opportunity to chat with students and letting them know the details of events to come.
Student drivers: "Some students remembered the event from last year, and some care more this year than they did last year," Matteson says. "There's a good group of them interested in sustainability, "there's a sustainability coordinator on campus,"and that's a driving force in recycling and composting. Of course, some students don't care at all, but I think it changes with education."
During the year, American's Farm to Fork station features most of the farm produce, while Cucina Verde, a vegan/vegetarian station, offers some local items. "Also, on our Comfort Station, there are locally purchased greens. Plus, all our chicken is antibiotic-free and raised within 150 miles of campus," Matteson continues.
"Overall, our staff really embrace our philosophy including cooking from scratch and personal interaction with students. We all have a lot of fun."
Getting attention: While marketing the overall program as well as the annual Eat Local luncheon to students and faculty, Matteson reached out to National Public Radio as well as the Maryland Department of Agriculture. Secretary Lewis Riley, along with Keith Menchey, PhD, the department's assistant secretary for policy development, attended, as did an NPR reporter.
Riley, himself a sixth-generation grain and poultry farmer, admitted that although his department has "a very aggressive marketing arm, we didn't even know about you guys and the Bon Appetit Farm to Table effort," referring to the contractor's ongoing initiatives to embrace local sourcing.
Riley invited Matteson and Black to come to the next Department of Agriculture meeting of Maryland farmers to tell them, prior to the planting season, exactly what crops they want for the coming year.