‘Farm to Fork’ dining services at Wake on path towards local food sourcing

by Jordan Green

Lauren Formica, a sophomore at Wake Forest University majoring in economics, stood behind a table on the patio behind Reynolda Hall with Hannah Slodounik, a staff member in the university’s Office of Sustainability, on a sweltering Thursday morning inviting students to take a sustainable food quiz.The first question: “On average, how many miles does food travel from where its produced to get to your plate?” Answer: “1,500 miles.”

The answer to the second question — which North Carolina city holds the highest rate of food insecurity for families —’is fairly well known. It’s Winston-Salem. As sophomore Caroline Cunningham placed a Velcro tab on her answer, Formica seized on the opportunity to make use of a teachable moment.“We talk about not only food deserts, but also food swamps,” she said, “to point out the importance of not only having food, but also having healthy food.”

The quiz also asks students to guess how many farmers markets are located in Forsyth County. It’s a surprisingly high number for a relatively small county: seven. Formica and other sustainability advocates on campus encourage students to visit the farmers market at Reynolda Village, located just off campus, and the Old Salem Cobblestone Farmers Market.

The campus sustainability office tables on the patio once a week for Think Green Thursday as part of an effort to raise awareness. To sweeten the proposition of the quiz, Formica and Slodounik offered passersby samples of fresh basil, black cherry tomatoes and mozzarella cheese. The basil, a zestful contribution to the trio, was grown in the campus garden, but a volunteer had taken the stock of heirloom tomatoes from the garden to a local middle school for a teaching project. As a substitute, Harmony Ridge Farms in Tobaccoville — operated by Wake alum Isaac Oliver — had supplied black cherry tomatoes, with a delectable sweet and savory taste that is nothing like the product available from the supermarket. The mozzarella balls came from Trader Joes.

As part of an overall sustainability push, the university is attempting to increase local sourcing of food for dining services and catering. As defined in the university’s 2012-2015 Sustainability Strategic Plan, sustainable sourcing covers food and beverages that are grown, caught or processed in North Carolina or within 250 miles of campus, or that are in compliance with a number of certifications, including USDA Organic, Marine Stewardship Council, Food Alliance, Fair Trade or Certified Humane.

The university reports that the percentage of its budget spent on sustainable food options doubled from 4 percent to almost 11 percent from 2010 to 2011. But the strategic plan candidly acknowledges, “While this shows marked improvement, the university still lags behind peer institutions.”

In contrast, 25 percent of food served by Duke University dining services in Durham is sourced within 250 miles of campus.

Wake Forest University reports its progress on sustainability goals through a set of metrics devised by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education called “STARS (Sustainability Tracking Assessment Rating System.”

Wake likewise lags Duke on indicators for building design and energy efficiency: Only 2 percent of Wake’s overall square footage is LEED certified, compared to 8 percent at Duke, while Wake reduced energy use by 10 percent from 2006-2007 to 2010-2011, compared to a 23-percent reduction by Duke over the same time period.

Wake Forest University, with total undergraduate enrollment of 4,815, does not have a post-consumer, food-waste recycling program at its dining facilities, but experimented with dehydrating technology in the fall 2010 semester.

In contrast, Duke University, which serves 6,484 undergrads, reports on its website that “an estimated 90 percent of pre-consumer and post-consumer waste is composted” in dining services facilities on campus.

Wake Forest University has set a goal of increasing its sustainable food sourcing to 20 percent by 2015. The Office of Sustainability is working closely with Aramark, the Philadelphia-based food service giant that holds the university’s dining services contract, to meet that mark.

“It’s really a matter of how we’re able to work with those service providers to bring local producers into their supply chain, which is different than if you or I decided to do it ourselves,” said Dedee Longpr’ Johnston, Wake Forest University’s sustainability director. “With a large corporation such as Aramark, there are supply-chain restrictions. It takes a little longer for them to bring about changes. It might not sound that ambitious, but it is ambitious when you’re talking about moving a mountain like supply-chain changes. There are liability constraints. They have to consider safety first. There’s also an issue with quantity. They may have to procure from several providers so that they have a certain redundancy in supply chain because of the sheer number of people they’re feeding every day. They have to be able to plan their menu.”

Johnston also said while the university is pushing Aramark to incorporate sustainability values, they want to do so without driving up costs for students.

Johnston said most of the locally-sourced food that Aramark handles is served in catering — a smaller and more flexible operation than the dining hall.

“We have something called ‘Farm-to-Fork Friday’ once a month, where they try to showcase the providers in catering,” she said. “They will label for us which ingredients and which dishes, and which farm they came from.”

Johnston said Aramark works with a representative of FreshPoint to source local produce. A subsididary of fellow food-service giant Sysco, FreshPoint tracks when particular products are available and in season at local farms so that large vendors can place orders. The FreshPoint representative who works with Aramark at Wake Forest University said he was not authorized to talk on the record for this story. Johnston said that while she reviews Aramark’s suppliers list on a quarterly basis, the seasonal nature of procurement made her wary of citing specific farms in North Carolina that supply food for the dining hall.

California-based Bon App’tit, Duke University’s vendor, has required that all its chefs source at least 20 percent of their ingredients from “small, owner-operated farms, ranches and artisanal businesses within 150 miles of their kitchens,” said the company’s communications director, Bonnie Azab Powell, in an e-mail.

The company maintains a menu on its website that notes which dishes contain ingredients that are purchased from a local farmer or artisan. The website also posts a map with information about local suppliers, including Faucette Farm in Guilford County, although Powell said that not all of the information is up to date.

Powell indicates that Bon App’tit’s business model incorporates sustainability, helping to maintain its bottom line.

“I can’t speak for our competitors, but we cook from scratch, which means we are able to utilize as much of the local produce and meat as possible,” she said. “Stems and stalks and bones get roasted for stock. Buying fresh food in season is often cheaper than buying produce from far away.”

A hundred miles to the west in Winston-Salem, student volunteers maintain a garden on campus as part of Wake Forest University’s ongoing quest to improve sustainability.

“We might send a bucket of basil or a box of tomatoes to catering,” Johnston said. “It wouldn’t put a dent in what Aramark is preparing. They definitely label that as coming straight from the garden.”While the campus garden might not affect the industrial food system that still dictates how Wake students get the majority of their meals, it has made a ripple in the community. Both Aramark and the campus garden contribute food that makes its way to people in the community who are at risk of experiencing hunger.

Campus Kitchen, a social service project at Wake Forest University, collects uneaten food prepared by Aramark that has not left the kitchen. Fresh produce from the campus garden might make a salad to augment the meals, which are distributed to retirement homes and agencies that address hunger in the community.

For the past two summers, Johnston said, the campus garden has been managed by divinity graduate students who see the work as part of their future ministries.

“It’s an engaged learning opportunity in which folks are getting their hands dirty and letting off steam after studying,” she said. “But they’re also learning about food production, managing a cooperative space and learning how food gets to people who need it the most.”