College Cafeterias Major in Organics

Think college cafeteria food and the first thing that comes to mind likely isn’t grilled free-range chicken, organic salad greens, and apple crisp made with locally grown fruit. Yet that menu was served last fall at the inaugural dinner of the Yale University Sustainable Food Project—a program started in 2003 to bring seasonal and organic menus, an organic garden, and a composting program to campus. Students are implementing similar concepts at other universities, including Stanford and the University of Wisconsin. The trend in college dining reflects Americans’ changing palates; according to the Organic Trade Association, sales of organics are growing at about 20 percent a year, while conventional foods sales remain flat. Although bringing organic foods to university dining halls isn’t always an easy task, these three schools have found that the rewards—including those that reach beyond the college gates—are worth the costs.

Yale University
“It’s not just about great food,” says Judith Joffe-Block, a Yale senior and a student member of the Sustainable Food Project steering committee. “We’re hoping that higher demand will change the market for these products, preserve farmland in the Northeast, and help sustain organic agriculture.” Since fall 2003, one of Yale’s 12 residential dining halls has served 19 organic meals each week. To make the extensive program feasible, food service staff had to break away from heat-and-eat offerings and “bring cooking back into the job,” says Joffe-Block. California restaurateur and Yale parent Alice Waters, along with chef Seen Lippert and Yale Dining Services, helped plan menus for huge quantities of easy-to-prepare and healthy foods. However, because making the switch to organic and free-range meat was expensive, the cafeteria eliminated certain items, such as a daily grilled meat.

Stanford University
To reduce costs, other schools, such as Stanford University, have turned to bulk foods. “Because of a guaranteed bulk sale, farmers [are often] willing to sell us their organics at the prevailing market price for conventional produce,” says Rafi Taherian, associate director for residential dining. The savings of this system have allowed Stanford to purchase many of its 19 salad bar items, served campuswide, from the Alba Organic co-op since 2002. Taherian hopes to expand the program to include organic meats next year. The arrangement not only provides a stable source of food for Stanford, it also means a consistent sale for farmers. “We want to show that this program is sustainable,” he says. “Local food means good taste, good economics, and less pollution.”

University of Wisconsin
Not everyone gets a bulk reduction like Stanford. Bob Fessenden, associate director of university housing at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, points out that students fund the school’s organic initiatives. The organic-inclusion program in residential dining halls now includes organic hamburgers, a seasonal dinner in the fall and spring, and a variety of locally grown offerings, such as red and baking potatoes and blue corn chips. Campus carryout stores stock prepackaged organic salads and frozen foods. According to Fessenden, students are willing to pay for organic options. For example, sales of organic cookies are rising even though the cookies cost $3 each. “More and more students come to us with an awareness of healthy eating,” Fessenden says. “There can’t be a corner of the country that’s untouched by the trend toward organic food.”

—Corinne McKay