The Triangle's college dining halls aren't quite the institutional cafeterias they used to be. A move toward serving food that's locally grown and produced through sustainable and organic farming practices is gaining traction at UNC-Chapel Hill, becoming the norm at Duke and sparking conversations at N.C. State.
In October, a group of UNC students formed Fair, Local, Organic Food (FLO Food). The acronym represents the three basic pillars of sustainability: benefiting the economy, people and the environment.
"FLO Food should be food that benefits the consumer (it is organic and nutritious), benefits the business (UNC and Carolina Dining Services can sell it in their meal plans and not draw a huge deficit, and more of the money stays within the state, supporting local farmers), and it does not cause harm to the environment when it is produced, meaning it does not have to be shipped long distances or pollution and waste are not created during production and harvest," says member Sally Lee, a senior.
FLO Food began by organizing a local food forum on campus last fall. Nearly 200 people attended, says senior David Hamilton. The next day, the group conducted a roundtable discussion with Carolina Dining Services, Aramark (UNC's food service provider), local government leaders and members of the local farming community. Among the attendees was Patrick Robinette of Harris Acres Farms in Pinetops, N.C., whose grass-fed beef caught the group's attention.
Robinette says he was there to facilitate the deal on both ends.
"I told them, 'I'm here to help both groups. I'm not here to market my product, but I'm not here to hear a university tell a bunch of students no,'" says Robinette. "I told the students a hundred times that 'If the university decides to make the move, you have to purchase it.' I took both sides, because it takes both sides to make it work."
Apparently, it did work. Campus officials decided over winter break to try Robinette's product. Grass-fed burgers are now served in the Carolina Kitchen kiosk in Lenoir Dining Hall. At $3.99 for a quarter-pound burger, the grass-fed option is a dollar more than a conventional burger—yet, it outsold its conventional counterpart in its first month.
"People pay more if they think that value is there. The health benefits outweigh the price issue," says Skip Herrod, UNC's food service director. He handed out samples at UNC's Focus the Nation event on Jan. 31.
Rich in flavor and moist without a fatty taste, the beef was a hit among samplers.
"I like it a lot. It's definitely a different taste—a lot more natural flavor," Herrod says.
Robinette says the rapid success amazes him and he may not be able to keep up with the demand at Carolina just yet. But as he has learned by experience, students are willing to pay for quality. He also supplies about 60 percent of Duke's beef, up from a starting point of 10 percent when he began selling there.
"If you offer them a choice, the consumer will choose us over conventional any day," he says. "Because in their heart, they know it's right."
Robinette also commends Bon Appetit, Duke's largest food management company, praising it as the best sustainability system he's seen among campus dining services.
Duke University began focusing on sustainable food options in 2004, when graduate student Greg Andeck teamed up with dining services to examine the environmental impact of campus dining. Funded by Duke's Green Grant Fund, Andeck devoted his master's project to identifying and implementing sustainable and environmental practices within campus eateries. A year of work led to a committee of students, staff and community members working on greening Duke's dining options, says Tavey McDaniel, Duke's dining services director.
Bon Appetit's commitment to local, sustainable food coincides with the university's ideas, McDaniel says.
"They feel that in many respects, the issues surrounding sustainability are evolving from merely social concerns to a moral dilemma as well," she says. "Bon Appetit's Farm to Fork program is about investing in the health of our communities and the future of our food supply. Their first choice is to purchase seasonal and regional ingredients from a 150-mile radius of the Duke cafe."
In addition to providing nutritious food, the program supports a thriving local community as well as greatly reduces food miles, resulting in decreased global warming, air pollution, water contamination, traffic congestion and the need for oil. Bon Appetit purchases 16.5 percent of its food from local farmers, and Duke chefs create menus based on seasonality to capitalize on the availability of local products.
The Divinity School is home to the Refectory, Duke's most sustainable of its 32 private eateries. According to McDaniel, 20 percent of its offerings are organic. The restaurant adheres to a 35 percent minimum local content, which is sometimes up to 50 percent and as high as 70 percent in the summer.
Duke and N.C. State also apply sustainable standards to coffee. Since February 2006, N.C. State uses Port City Java, a chain from Wilmington, which sells fair-trade, organic coffee.
At N.C. State, another beverage travels even fewer miles to the dining halls. Students' milk comes from cows that live on campus farms.
"The on-campus dairy plant processes the milk and delivers whole, skim and chocolate milk to University Dining locations for consumption by students. University Dining also serves hand-dipped ice cream, also from the campus dairy," says Randy Lait, University Dining business manager. An ice cream shop is also in the works, he says.
Asked about sustainable options for dining services, Lait points to the school's annual "All Carolinas" meal that offers the university community a chance indulge in a meal of products from North and South Carolina.
As the Triangle's land-grant university with strong ties to local agriculture, though, some say NCSU could be doing more than just a once-a-year program.
"In terms of a huge, campuswide movement, we're probably not there yet," says Lindsay Batchelor, Environmental Program Manager in the Waste Reduction and Recycling Office. "There's definitely a movement and positive things happening. I'm sure it's going to be a process."
NCSU students are "adept and educated about buying local and organic," Batchelor says, yet those choices aren't necessarily reflected in the university's approach to dining hall food.
For this process to work, cooperation is key. For example, in FLO Food's efforts at UNC, Hamilton says it was essential to understand the challenges campus dining programs face and, in turn, cooperate with all parties involved.
"[Campus dining officials] are thinking of keeping from losing money," says Hamilton. "We wanted to show them that there was a lot of student support, and we wanted students to pay and stand up for more sustainable dining. Cooperation and compromise is the best way to get things done. We want to keep up the pressure and keep up the momentum."
Hamilton understands that other students may not realize why sustainable food is so important (he grew up on a farm in Fairview, N.C.), but he hopes to make others more aware through FLO Food.
"We need to value our food more," he says. "We're going to have to spend more of our income on food and less on other things."
According to the American Farm Bureau Federation, Americans currently spend about 13 percent of their disposable income on food consumed both inside and outside of the home.
Nancy Creamer, director of the successful Center for Environment Farming Systems, a program in Goldsboro that partners with N.C. State and N.C. A&T, is launching an initiative to rebuild the local agricultural economy. NCSU faces significant challenges to overhauling the way it feeds its students, she says.
"N.C. State began offering local, sustainable products in its cafeterias as far back as 2000, but these options are not always available and offerings have not been consistent," she says. "There are inherent barriers to institutional food buying when moving toward purchasing local, sustainable products. All institutions have to deal with these, but for a large institution like N.C. State, they can be particularly problematic."
Issues include price, ease of sourcing products individually versus one-stop shopping through a food service distributor, finding consistent supply, and labor costs for additional processing if necessary, she says.
NCSU is trying, says Clark Dining Hall Director Scott Curtner.
"One of the things we have to take into consideration, especially places like us, is that we do expect large volumes, and small producers may not be able to supply the volume we're telling our customers that we're going to have," Curtner says. "We base everything on the item, the growing cycle, the availability and the quality. Customers demand something and if you don't provide for them, then they become unhappy. We try to provide as much as we can homegrown, but we still have to give our customers what they want."
Pockets of sustainable food awareness are nestled throughout N.C. State's campus. Michelle Schroeder directs the agro-ecology program. Her students are diverse; some come from farming backgrounds while others, she says, may have a negative view of agriculture.
"I try to bring these perspectives together and we discuss how to directly improve the sustainability of our food systems," she says. "Many times, that gets students thinking about their own food purchases and the availability of sustainable food choices at the university."
Schroeder says there is a proposal in the works for a new green, sustainable living village at NCSU, which she views as a hopeful step.
"We need to initiate a Sustainable Food Council at NCSU," she continues. "Ideally, it would need to begin with students and require students to participate. I would love to see a joint effort of undergraduates, graduates, faculty and staff around this."