The Washington apples in the University’s dining halls – those Red Delicious ones that are a little too red and way too shiny – always disturbed me. One encounter with their mushy texture and bland flavor left me oddly thirsty and dissatisfied, wondering if perhaps they were the University’s way of teaching students that appearances can be deceiving.
As far as I’m concerned, Washington Red Delicious apples are not food, much less apples.
Maybe they’re okay in Washington. Maybe they were once edible, even tasty – before they were picked, washed and waxed some 2,500 miles ago. I couldn’t say; I’ve never been to Washington.
I do know that Michigan apples, when purchased in Michigan, are quite tasty. Even typically bland Red Delicious apples aren’t that bad when they have been spared the up to eight-month-long wait in a temperature-controlled warehouse that Washington’s exports endure.
Beginning a few years ago, the University started serving Michigan apples in the residence halls during the fall. It’s not part of a campus-wide movement to satiate students’ appetites – or maybe just my appetite – for Michigan McIntosh and Empire apples. Rather, it’s just one aspect of efforts to include more locally grown foods in campus dining hall offerings.
Why care? Buying more local foods will increase menu variety, cut down on the air and water pollution inherent in shipping foods across the country and help out the local economy. Besides making the hippies happy, using locally grown foods increases the quality of cafeteria fare, perhaps leaving students a little less tired of dorm food come spring.
University dining halls serve roughly 10,000 meals a day. Following the lead of tiny, private liberal arts colleges like Sterling College of Virginia – where students produce most of their own food, or at least purchase it locally – would be an outright bad idea. I can’t see University students raising enough cattle, making enough maple syrup or pickling enough beans and beets – as Sterling students do – to feed any significant number of their classmates.
But what the University can realistically do is significantly expand its offering of locally grown foods. It’s doing a better job than just a few years ago – all the tofu and dairy served in University dining halls now is from Michigan – but we could be doing a lot more. Even working within the often cumbersome framework of vendor contracts and standardized menus, University Dining Services can work with farmers in the county and the state to expand its cafeteria offerings.
Asking the University to shell out food prices comparable to the “Yuppie tax” that Whole Foods shoppers pay is unnecessary. Buying more local foods may often be slightly more expensive – students at Northland College in Wisconsin agreed to a six-cent per-meal price increase to pay for local potatoes and onions – but that is not always the case.
Switching from packaged California tofu to bulk organic Michigan tofu has saved the University thousands of dollars annually. Although these tofu savings don’t even make a dent in the University’s nearly $6-million annual food budget, the switch demonstrates that using locally grown produce is not necessarily a luxury.
There are certainly obstacles. According to nutrition specialist Ruth Blackburn of University Dining Services, the University requires that food vendors possess expensive liability insurance which most small produce farmers lack, and individual farms often cannot produce large quantities on their own. Working with individual farmers and local groups to create distribution cooperatives can help resolve these challenges and bridge the gap between local farms and students’ cafeteria trays.
But any major new effort – whether trying to get the University to serve more Washtenaw County-grown squash or converting an entire dining hall to serve locally grown produce, as Blackburn hopes could one day be accomplished – will take pressure from students. It’s not that hard of a fight – if activism on campus is strong enough to wear down the University’s reluctance to take action against the Coca-Cola Company, it’s certainly capable of giving the University the shove necessary to make locally grown foods a larger part of cafeteria menus.
What could seem like a marginal cause to some is quickly spreading nationwide – even The New York Times last week declared the terms “local” and “sustainable” the latest “culinary buzzwords.” That settles it: Everybody’s doing it.
As more students become aware of the benefits of locally grown food and the realistic measures the University can take, it will likely require little more than a dedicated student organization and a whole lot of dining room comment cards to get things moving. The University has already made limited progress, and students would benefit from the efforts already underway to forge partnerships between University chefs and local groups like the Food System Economic Partnership. By the time students finally take notice, they may be jumping on the student activist bandwagon, but there’s no harm in reaping these delicious and socially responsible rewards.
Beam can be reached at email@example.com.