“Part of being sustainable is making sense,” Director of Sustainability Mike Ballas said as he drove a school van down one of Knox County’s trademark country roads. He drives 20 minutes up to the Owl Creek Auction — run by an Amish community near Fredericktown — every Monday, Wednesday and Friday to purchase a large portion of the produce that Peirce Dining Hall will use during the week. “You know, if we’re gonna drive 300 miles to buy a gallon of milk, that’s not sustainable; that doesn’t make sense,” Ballas said. “So we try to group everything together.”
AVI Foodsystems, Kenyon’s official dining service, has been a pioneer of the local foods movement that is spreading to college campuses across the United States. Professor Emeritus of Sociology Howard Sacks, who helped spearhead the local foods initiative at Kenyon in 2003, said AVI’s success stems from willingness to alter its operations dramatically and look for more practical ways of purchasing, delivering, storing, processing and preparing food. Today, buying local ingredients is a major part of AVI’s philosophy at Kenyon and is closely connected to the program’s focus on sustainability.
AVI has recently taken strides to educate students on how sustainability and locality play into purchasing and cooking processes by posting information in slideshows and flyers throughout Peirce. Additionally, AVI Resident Director Kim Novak welcomes the opportunity to take students around behind-the-scenes of the dining hall directly. On Sept. 21, Ballas and Novak led eight members of Kenyon’s Environmental Campus Organization (ECO) on a tour of Peirce, during which group members examined food storage and cooking processes as well as a composting system installed during renovations in 2007. The system helps Peirce utilize tons of food waste for fertilization of on-campus fields and gardens each year.
Ballas showed the group the fridges for storing meats and produce and explained how different ingredients for meals are grouped together based upon the temperature required to keep them fresh. Produce is purchased every day from local farmers, the Owl Creek Auction House and local markets in that order. Fruits and vegetables last for two days. Meat purchased locally primarily consists of pork and beef. It is purchased four times per month and used to cook meals for a week at a time.
Ballas meets daily with Head Chef Jeremy Fonner to plan Peirce’s menu and then works with Assistant Sustainability Director David Swartzentruber, a Knox County native and former dairy farmer, to purchase ingredients.
“[David] knows the farming side, I know the cooking side,” said Ballas, who was a chef for 30 years— most recently as Executive Chef at St. Ann’s Hospital in Westerville — before taking on the position of Sustainability Director.
Their relationship enables Ballas and Swartzentruber to choose products that will make for the tastiest and most affordable meals while also maintaining awareness of produce and livestock were raised. When making purchases, Ballas considers how prospective products will contribute to recipes, and Swartzentruber examines soil quality and evaluates processes used to raise the crops or livestock. AVI first purchases produce from farmers the dining service works with regularly; Ballas buys the remainder, usually 20-30 crates, at the auction, where Ballas bids for them at low prices. Tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers are staples for cooked food and the salad bar at Peirce. For that reason, Ballas always buys these items at the auction, where prices are low and goods sell in bulk when they are in season. Before winter, when crops are still fresh, AVI chefs cook 40 percent of food with local ingredients.
“I love cooking, and I love food, and getting this quality of freshness of food is a part of that,” Ballas said. “You can’t order from a Sysco or something like that and expect the same quality.” Swartzentruber pointed out buying locally also contributes to the economy of the local community, making Kenyon a more integrated part of Knox County and Ohio.
The thriving Amish community in Knox County plays a key role in AVI’s business relations. In addition to working several days per week with Amish farmer Jonathan Bailer, one of Kenyon’s number-one produce providers, Ballas buys many goods at the Owl Creek Auction, including tomatoes and squash, from Amish merchants. Sacks said that, due to their rejection of modern technology, the Amish refrain from using pesticides as well as combine harvesters and other large-scale equipment, resulting in a more environmentally friendly approach to farming.
A small variety of ingredients, including some potatoes and, for “Peirce-giving,” turkeys — come from the Kenyon Farm, which was developed by former Sustainability Director John Marsh. Residents of the farm meet with Ballas monthly to discuss the use of their crops and livestock.
AVI buys the remainder of ingredients, including canned tomatoes for pasta sauce and a wide variety of herbs and spices, primarily through Sysco, with shipments coming in to Peirce’s loading dock from different regions of the country via commercial truck each morning. Other sources for ingredients include Sirna & Sons Produce and Lanning’s Foods.
Elise Neidecker ’19, a member of ECO, appreciates how Kenyon is unlike most colleges in that it prepares its food on-site. She also noted that AVI’s focus on sustainability brings awareness to the food preparation process. “Touring the food prep and compost system showed me just how much thought and time goes into preparing our food,” she said. “Mike Ballas … personally checks that the animals we eat are ethically raised. As students, we need to do a better job of appreciating the quality of AVI, including the food they prepare for us and the ecological mindfulness they have in everything they do.”