Often, when college students linger over meals to chat about a social-justice movement, they hash out ways they can make a greater impact.
But last month, students at Emmanuel College in Boston were discussing how to lessen their impact – a goal the school applauds – since the “lesser impact” amounts to decreased carbon emissions, pesticides, and the distance food travels from a farm to the school cafeteria.
It’s a message that resonates throughout the campus, where sustainable agriculture fits in with school efforts to promote solidarity, and where the Bon Appetit Management Co., which provides food services to the school, ensures that 20 percent of each meal is composed of local foods.
But to really highlight the importance of local eating, Bon Appetit, which operates some 400 cafes and restaurants around the country, hosted a nationwide “eat local challenge” on Sept. 30, where everything on the menu came from farmers or producers located within 150 miles of each cafe’s kitchen.
Emmanuel’s event, from the Gloucester sea scallops down to baked potato soup made from Massachusetts spuds, provided a forum for students to taste the local bounty and discuss why they think local eating is important: It supports local farmers. The schoolwide effort – endorsed by administrators and kitchen staff alike – is just one of a growing number of local eating programs popping up on campuses nationwide.
“They are the future, and I hope they hear it here and tell someone about it,” says Kelly McDonald, general manager for Bon Appetit’s Emmanuel cafes. “They’ll graduate college and go out in the world, and, hopefully, think, ‘Oh I should buy from this local farmer, or help him or her out.’ ”
According to the US Department of Agriculture, farmers’ markets have increased 6.8 percent since 2006. And college cafeterias are joining the ranks of those consumers who strive to eat locally, according to Greenreportcard.org, a project of the Sustainable Endowments Institute in Cambridge, Mass. Brown University in Providence, R.I., stocks dining halls with foods from 20 local farms. The University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia has created an “edible forest” to teach urban agriculture. And the University of Vermont in Burlington obtains 30 percent of its cafeteria food from local farms.
On challenge day at Emmanuel, the local eating lesson was savory. Menu items included country-style chicken with honey-glazed carrots from a farm in Acton, Mass.; pizzas made with Rhode Island dough; seafood chowder (containing fish, lobster, and shrimp) from Lynn, Mass., and apples flambé from Peabody, Mass. Pumpkin-spice coffee from Green Mountain Coffee Co. of Waterbury, Vt., complemented the Gloucester, Mass., dessert “slushies.”
“It’s great food, and I could taste the difference,” says Emmanuel freshman William Brown, while feasting on (local) chicken stir fry. “I’m going to go back for some pasta.”
Other students say the challenge let them see firsthand the implementation of values they discuss in class.
Sophomore Danette Pena, who, in her religion and ecology class, is reading “Animal Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life” by Barbara Kingsolver, was happy about the challenge. “The average American meal travels 1,500 miles,” Ms. Pena says, wrinkling her nose at the thought of fruits and vegetables that may not be fresh.
But from a humanitarian standpoint, local buying supports farmers who may be struggling to compete with factory farms, she says, stressing a responsibility to support others in the community. “It benefits farmers, who get to sell directly to consumers, who will then eat healthier.”
Executive chef Carl Macchione says Emmanuel supports his work to implement local foods, from classroom curriculum to additional funds.
Mr. Macchione – who once oversaw a hotel kitchen where local foods weren’t a consideration – says local eating efforts have inspired him to search for additional opportunities to make an impact. Envisioning ways to reduce the school’s carbon imprint, Macchione cut bananas to two days a week because the fruit must be hauled from Central America. He also reduced the size of his beef patties from 5 ounces to 3.2 ounces.
“It’s definitely a change in mind-set, going from having everything available to all-local,” he says, smiling while holding a bright orange pepper that he had plucked from a consortium of local vendors.
Emmanuel sophomore Amy Fell says the school helps students make the connection between local eating practices and a social justice mandate to reach out to others. “I’m from Alaska so we’ve always had farmers’ markets [in addition to] going to the grocery store,” she says. “It’s a way to eat locally but also support your neighbor.”
Ms. Pena says the effort does involve some compromise. For many, it’s monetary. “It might be a little more expensive” to eat locally, she says.
For others, the sacrifice leaves taste buds wanting.
“It might be good as far as trying to save energy and eliminate gas, but I don’t know if I could do it solely. I like my fruits from far away,” says sophomore Christina Costa, referring to the disappearance of the bananas.
McDonald and Macchione say climate can be another obstacle. On challenge day, for example, Macchione had intended to serve roasted root vegetables with the chicken. But what he wanted wasn’t available, so he opted for glazed carrots.
“In California, everything is always in season. But here ... it’s all about the availability of the product,” McDonald says.
Students say that, ultimately, their focus is on benefits to local farmers, something above and beyond simply buying organic foods.
“There’s more of this push for organic. It’s become more common to think of organic rather than a farmer,” says sophomore Allisyn Young. “But the farmers need us to buy from them.”
It’s a sentiment that McDonald seconds, adding that the college sees intentional eating as a part of its mission to build community, inside and outside campus walls.
Emmanuel “really embraces it,” she says. “The project is important, as is the sense of community. They want people to come in, to eat together. Students, faculty, and staff eat together here.”