How did you get involved with the Organic Vegetable Project (OVP)?
Some faculty and students initiated the OVP at the University Farm back in 2007. Since Chico State is a state agency, the farm is prohibited from selling food to the public at large because it would be competing with other local farmers. Therefore, selling to the campus is the only appropriate market for this produce. The OVP approached Dining Services about its potential to sell organic produce to the campus. Currently, the partnership is simply that the OVP tries to grow items that are menued on Dining Services’ menus. The OVP has realized that Dining Services needs a large volume in order to make it work so they’ve shifted away from planting “trial varieties” and experimenting with unique strains of plants and are moving more toward focusing on just a few target crops such as melons, tomatoes and lettuce and growing as much as possible.
Why are organics so important to your Dining Services program?
Organics are becoming more mainstream and many students are asking for them. The Chico State campus is committed to sustainability and has received a lot of recognition for sustainability efforts. This causes closer scrutiny of all aspects of the campus, and food is an area that has a great potential to showcase sustainability efforts and to make a big impact. Offering organic options for catering is also a key opportunity.
How do you use organics in your program?
Catering uses organic produce for special events and has been very creative working with clients who want local, organic, fair trade, etc., particularly for sustainability events such as the annual This Way To Sustainability conference hosted on the Chico State campus every November. The residence hall dining has recently increased the quantity of organic produce it uses. It’s been pretty simple for the staff to call up the farm coordinator at the OVP and order several cases of a particular item. She can usually have it delivered later that day or the next day. She provides an invoice and it gets paid just as all our other bills get paid.
What are the biggest challenges of using organics in your program?
The main challenge would probably be that the OVP doesn’t always have the quantity of produce that we need for our large-scale operations. Although some of the tomatoes might be organic, the others might not be so it’s difficult to promote a particular meal as 100% organic. The other challenge is that the organic produce arrives at the kitchen still needing to be washed and prepped. It is partially washed but needs to be chopped and washed more thoroughly, which takes staff time and kitchen space. The challenge for the farm is that they do not have potable water on site so although they are using a commercial lettuce spinner to wash the lettuce, it still needs to be washed once it gets to the kitchen. Another challenge in the beginning was poor communication between the farm and the kitchen staff in terms of placing orders. The farm would harvest produce and deliver it to the kitchen, but we had already ordered all the lettuce we needed from our distributor. That meant we had more of something than we would be able to use and often had to throw it out. The OVP hired a student marketing manager intern this year whose role is to facilitate better communication between the OVP and the kitchen staff. Communication has greatly improved over the past year and generally speaking, there is now an established relationship between the key individuals. Those relationships seem to be an integral component to success.
How have students been involved in facilitating the organics program?
Students pushed for a resolution through student government that called for more organics. Most recently students put an initiative on the ballot calling for a certain percentage of food to be locally sourced. Currently the students are working with Dining Services staff to propose ways that more locally grown food items can be incorporated. One of the challenges with this kind of initiative is measuring how effectively it is being implemented. We don’t have a good way to track the percentage of local or organic foods. The fact that availability changes seasonally is also a challenge. The OVP at the farm utilizes students, faculty, some volunteers and some paid staff to grow the produce. There are some student interns currently working with our sustainability program to research the potential for locally sourced foods.