Samantha Beckerman, Program Assistant, Global Strategy & Advocacy and Climate Programs, Washington, D.C.
It is 9 o’clock on a Wednesday morning and as students at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio make their way to Peirce Dining Hall to eat breakfast a diverse array of local food awaits them. Students can choose from sausage made from local pork, local butter, jam, milk, yogurt, eggs and local Amish-made cereals, granola and baked goods. Lunch is equally as exciting and as a student at Kenyon, I was always drawn to the salad bar which, depending on the season, was stocked with a variety of farm-fresh local produce including cherry tomatoes, cheese and beets.
Kenyon gets their meat from Rittberger’s, a local meat producer.
Kenyon’s local food program is just one example of a college campus promoting sustainability and education on climate change. The 10th Annual Campus Sustainability Day, a national day of action and reflection on the success of the sustainability movement in higher education is on Wednesday, October 24th. Second Nature along with campuses across the country are organizing discussions to gather input from students, faculty, and staff on the best practices and remaining challenges for providing students with the skills and experiences they need to prepare for a changing climate, society, and economy. As a way to start my own discussion on the connection between college campuses, climate change and sustainability I decided to conduct three interviews on the local food program at Kenyon. I spoke with Becca Katzman, a junior at Kenyon majoring in Sociology and the Student Manager of the Rural Life Center, Ed Neal, Kenyon’s Sustainability Director and Howard Sacks, Professor of Sociology, Director of the Rural Life Center and contributing author to “The Sustainable University: Green Goals and New Challenges for Higher Education Leaders.” All three interviewees graciously answered my questions and provided me with an inside look at a vibrant campus food program which preserves the vitality of rural life and educates students on the importance of their food and environmental choices.
Wilma Hershberger, an Amish lady, makes all of the pickles and pickled beets for Kenyon’s dining hall in the cannery in her basement.
History of Local Food at Kenyon
The idea for a local food program at Kenyon goes back to the mid 1990’s when students conducted a family farm project which explored the significance of family farming to community life. The Rural Life Center brought together organizations and individuals in the community to discuss and address issues that affect the vitality of rural life. Food and farming played a large role in these discussions and led to several initiatives including a guide to local food products in 2000, the creation of the Mt. Vernon Farmers Market and the first local food in Kenyon’s dining hall in 2003. Kenyon’s local food program is one part of Knox County’s larger initiative to build a countywide food system.
Curricular, Co-curricular, Extracurricular
The local food program at Kenyon is an interdisciplinary part of the school’s curriculum with courses in Anthropology, Environmental Studies, Art, Philosophy, Religious Studies and History (just to name some!) that examine food, farming and rural life. Local food is also promoted outside of academics through college clubs and organizations like the Environmental Campus Organizations (ECO), People Endorsing Agrarian Sustainability (PEAS) and The Food Co-op. Every time a student walks through the servery at Peirce they come face to face with signs labeling local food and educating students on the campus compost facility.
Students work at Dharma Farm in Gambier and receive credit for the Sustainable Agriculture course.
What is Local?
40% of the food dollars Kenyon spends is on local food. Kenyon defines local in terms of geography, social relationships and method of production. They use a concentric zone model in order to find local products starting with a search within the county then moving outwards. Kenyon establishes ongoing relationships with farmers in the area, supporting them so they can support the school. For example, the school has bought hoop houses (a green house with a plastic roof wrapped over flexible piping) for several farmers which allows them to have a longer growing season and for the cafeteria to have fresh produce for longer. Howard Sacks, Professor of Sociology explains that the local food program at Kenyon combats climate change by preserving green space. By helping to sustain family farming, the majority of land in Knox County continues to be cultivated and remains green.
Challenges of Using Local Food
Howard and Kenyon student, Becca both discussed with me some of the major challenges campuses using local food face. To begin with, America’s global food system gears most farmers to develop crops for sale to a global market rather than a local one. Kenyon works hard to address the practical challenges of creating infrastructure, purchasing and storage systems that support a local food system as well as giving farmers the support they need to retool their operations and provide products for a local market. Another challenge is education and consumer consciousness. Being sure that students and the general public think about where their food comes from, why it matters and how it affects their health and the environment is a huge challenge in itself.
Kenyon looks to alternative methods for attaining food such as supporting their local produce auction and county fair. This picture was taken at the Knox county fair.
Advice and Recommendations
Below is a short list of recommendations (based on my interviews) for schools interested in beginning or expanding their local food program.
- Tailor what you’re doing to your particular geographical area.
- Know why you are investing in local food: is it for the educational benefit, the nutritional benefit or is it to help sustain the local economy?
- Start small with a focus on only a few products and farmers.
- Have support from the bottom-up as well as the top-down. Students, board members, senior faculty, professors and maintenance staff must all be on board.
Kenyon’s food program continues to grow and for additional information please see Becca’s amazing website which examines the institutionalization of a farm-to-college system. I persuade all of you to join a conversation and learn more about what your campus or alma mater is doing to combat climate change and improve sustainability.
Image 1, 2 and 4: Courtesy of Becca Katz
Image 3: Courtesy of Kate Helt
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