Cafeteria With A Conscience
Locally-grown produce is helping Tufts students and staff satisfy their hunger and their appetite for environmental activism.
What did you have for dinner last night? Maybe you prepared it yourself, or maybe it was your night to eat take-out in front of the television. Maybe you counted your calories or your carbs or your servings of fruits and veggies, but did you add up the mileage?
In the United States, the items on a typical dinner plate have traveled between 1,500 and 2,500 miles to get there. That distance has increased by as much as 25 percent over the last 20 years - an increase that comes with a cascade of consequences for food, farmers, consumers, local economies and even the global climate.
Starting last fall on Tufts' Medford/Somerville campus, students had the chance to lower the overall mileage of their lunches when the dining hall offered apples grown in nearby Topsfield, Mass. Part of the Harvest Food Festival organized by Tufts Dining Services, the "make-your-own- caramel-apple" display featured six different locally-grown apple varieties. The popular program was part of ongoing efforts to increase the amount of local produce available on Tufts' campuses.
Friedman School Ph.D. student Melissa Bailey is one of those devoted to the cause. Combining her interests in sustainable agriculture and public policy, Bailey took it upon herself to breathe new life into the Tufts Food Awareness Project (TFAP), a group launched by Tufts graduate students in the 1990s to raise awareness about the environmental, social and health issues connected to food production.
"It was a great start, and there had been a lot of student backing and interest," Bailey says. "But when the students graduate, the idea sort of graduates with them if it's not institutionalized as part of the community."
So Bailey joined forces with Dining Services nutrition marketing specialist Julie Lampie, in whom she found an enthusiastic ally, and secured a grant from the Tufts Institute for the Environment to pay graduate students Bryanna Millis (F04) and Georgia Kayser (F06) to work on the project. Together, the team works to raise awareness, solve problems and forge partnerships among the primary players: Tufts' chefs, major food distributors and local farmers.
Bailey and Lampie - who work on the project mainly as a labor of love - also seek to raise awareness among the student body to the point where student demand drives the addition of local produce to Tufts' menus. On caramel apple night, their outreach took the form of informational posters about the Connemara House Apple Farm and Guinee family who plant and tend the apple trees. They also described the personal and global benefits of eating locally-grown produce.
"Of course the students loved making caramel apples, but it also gave them an education," Bailey says. "It's not up to me to make an ethical appeal to them, but they need to have the information to be able to make an informed choice." Bailey earned her master's in animals and public policy from Tufts School of Veterinary Medicine in 2003. After graduation, she became assistant director of the Center for International Environmental and Resource Policy at the Fletcher School.
While her interest in wildlife and biodiversity led her to enroll in the Friedman School's Agriculture, Food and Environment Program, she soon became intrigued by the way agriculture intersects with the environment, labor and economics. "That's one of the great things about grad school; you meet people who really influence your life," Bailey says. "Just through conversations with a peer, I felt like I was ready to investigate [these issues] long term."
From farm to fork
What are the benefits of buying local? Obviously, produce making the trip from Topsfield to Medford requires less fossil fuel to get it from farm to dining hall than apples grown in Washington state. Using less gasoline means reducing the amount of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere. Shorter trips also require less energy-guzzling refrigeration and waste-producing packaging. Some experts estimate that globe-trotting produce can require up to four times as much energy as an equivalent amount of local food and account for four times the greenhouse gas emissions. Then there's the amount of energy, water, pesticides and fertilizers that go into raising produce.
"If you grow things that are suited to your climate locally," Bailey explains, "you might not need as many of these inputs on the front end to grow things."
Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, homeland security experts have even noted that food is more vulnerable to sabotage the longer the distance from farm to fork. Recent decades have witnessed the rise of centralized, corporate agriculture; just 10 multinational companies produce more than half of the products available in the average supermarket. That puts the nation's food supply at greater risk for contamination - whether intentional or unintentional, as with mad cow disease or E.coli outbreaks. Similarly, if the nation's transportation systems were ever disabled, many cities and towns would run out of food within a day or two.
But as the interest in consuming locally-grown produce blossoms, the number of farmers'markets in the United States has doubled in the last decade. That means a safer and more constant food supply for people lucky enough to live near these 3,100 markets. The Worldwatch Institute estimates consumers are spending some $1 billion annually at local farmers'markets, pouring that money into their regional economies. A large institution like Tufts buying locally-grown produce is a boom to the Massachusetts economy and fosters positive town-gown relations.
"The local farms will increasingly benefit, given the volume that we use," Bailey says. "The Guinees love farming apples, and they just saw this as a great community partnership."
But even those of us who don't always think quite so globally still have reason to choose locally-grown foods. Many varieties of fruits and veggies have actually been bred for traits that will help them survive the trip, not necessarily enhance their flavor. Double-blind taste tests show people simply find local foods fresher, tastier and more appealing. Think of the difference between typical salad bar tomatoes and those from your neighbor's backyard.
Bailey says that Tufts' dining staff have been enthusiastic partners, too, rising to the creative challenge of creating menus based solely on what's locally available. "The chefs Julie [Lampie] works with were great," she says. "They came up with new recipes using local butternut squash to make soups."
"I think it's synergistic," says Melissa Bailey, explaining the relationship between educating students about sustainable agriculture and increased demand for locally-grown produce. "We start slowly injecting small things on an institutional level, students become more aware and demand things, and in turn, your institution changes, and they feed back on each other."
Winter of our discontent
With all the attractive reasons to serve local foods in Tufts' dining halls, there is one, long, cold problem.
"The limitation is the winter, basically," Lampie laments. "There is so little available for the majority of the school year, which is really frustrating. The California schools have a huge advantage."
In New England, the growing season is short. From June through September, Massachusetts farmers produce everything from apples to watermelons. But after September, only October's apples, cranberries, cabbages, potatoes and squashes remain for chefs to work with until early veggies like asparagus come up in the spring.
"The next step would be twofold: One, to find out what the earliest produce would be and when we could get them, and, two, give the chefs time to prepare," Bailey says. "It's up to them to integrate the information into their menus, but we need to provide it first."
Another issue is food preparation. When foods like potatoes or butternut squash come from national vendors, they arrive in cans pre-peeled and cubed. Lettuce often arrives washed, chopped or shredded. Industry insiders call these prepped and ready-to-go bulk foods "value-added." But neither the local farms nor Tufts has the labor and facilities to process, say, Maine potatoes this way.
"For Tufts, the labor costs of having the staff peel hundreds of potatoes," Bailey says, "is just not feasible." But Lampie, working closely with Tufts' vendors, asked the suppliers to inform her which value-added products of theirs just happen to be locally grown.
"In the past we didn't ask, and they didn't tell us where their foods were produced," Lampie explains. "Now that they know it's important to us, they give us a big sheet each week that lists everything that's locally grown. We have asked for it, and they have responded. It's really a partnership."
Meanwhile, Bailey has looked into getting locally-grown produce into the dining facilities on the veterinary school's Grafton campus.
"At the vet school, they are very interested and open to it," she says. "Their main obstacle there is that they don't have the labor or the ability to go out to the farm and get the produce, nor do they have the staff to prepare them."
But Bailey remains optimistic that Tufts staff and students can get around labor and transport issues - unlike winter - if the demand and interest remain high.
"That's something we're investigating. Maybe it should be a student job to pick up the produce once a week and bring it to the dining facility," says Bailey. "There are obstacles, but I think there are lots of opportunities to overcome those obstacles when you consider the resources we have at Tufts."
It is just before noon on an unseasonably warm Tuesday in February, and the smell of what's cooking at Dewick-MacPhie Dining Hall leads Tufts students down the hill by their noses. Like college dining halls everywhere, Dewick-MacPhie - one of the two main dining halls on the Medford/Somerville campus - offers the usual campus favorites. Hot, golden fries and sizzling burgers might make the char grill the most aromatic of the dining hall's 10 stations. Pizza - that perennial college favorite - comes in a close second. But Julie Lampie has worked at Tufts for 20 years to ensure that students from all walks of life are able to find healthy food they like, three meals a day, seven days a week.
"We have a very diverse population here," she acknowledges. "Some are more sophisticated; some are more health conscious; some love French fries and gravy. So we have to accommodate many different palates here."
Just inside the dining hall entrance, students encounter the "beans, greens and grains" station. The vegetarian sides and entrees offered here are clearly marked as either vegan or vegetarian and their nutritional information (calorie, fat, protein and carbohydrate content) is posted nearby. The grains and legumes are organic and labeled as such. The veggie station represents Lampie's efforts to educate students about nutrition and help them make better choices.
Lampie and Bailey agree that giving students more information about nutrition and sustainable agriculture will increase the demand for healthy, organic and locally-grown produce.
"I haven't heard from more than six students," Lampie says. "It's not quite on their radar screen. I wish it were. When there is a request, it makes it so much easier to say 'Yes.'"
"I think it's synergistic," Bailey explains. "We start slowly injecting small things on an institutional level, students become more aware and demand things, and in turn, your institution changes, and they feed back on each other." Bailey emphasizes the importance of taking it one salad bar at a time.
"Maybe the best way to approach it is [that] we can't do it all across the board," she says. "But maybe what we can do is promote locally-grown items at one station. Then if students demand it and think it's worthwhile, that's when the administration responds best."
Meanwhile, Lampie and Bailey will continue to work from the top down as well as organize informational seminars and workshops for the staff.
"The basic roadblock is that it doesn't occur to people," Lampie says. "When the administration embraces the idea, it filters down. There's a real sense that we're doing some good, but it has to start with education."
Profile written by Jacqueline Mitchell
Jacqueline Mitchell is a senior health sciences writer in Tufts' Office of Publications. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
This story originally ran on May 9, 2005