by Victoria Ungvarsky
Every plastic napkin holder in Peirce Dining Hall bears the same message: Kenyon’s food is now 42-percent local. But conceptualizing the community, economic and dietary impacts of local food is difficult for students to do when sitting down for dinner.
Kenyon touts its local foods program, which is a joint effort with AVI Foodsystems. Local food encompasses food grown and raised in northeast Ohio. But this bubble extends further, including local suppliers whose products may be grown elsewhere, such as the quinoa and some of the citrus fruits. This portion factors into the percentage. Last year, this program cost the College $436,892.71.
Kenyon started providing a few local meals in 2004, but the program expanded in 2006 with the arrival of AVI and a desire to make better use of Kenyon’s location in the midst of a large farming community. “The decision was made by Kenyon with AVI to … not only provide great food for the students, but it was also to increase our spending in the community,” AVI Resident Director Kim Novak said.
In the summer of 2006, AVI hired John Marsh as the director of sustainability to expand the local foods program. “In that year .. we didn’t really do too much, and there was no record-keeping whatsoever,” Marsh said. “Then we started buying and keeping track and we were about 15 percent [local foods].”
Over the years, the percentage of local food has increased annually, as AVI has found new ways to procure local foods. Kenyon’s location means greater access to foods without having to resort to industrial food. Most of the local food purchased is dairy, beef and eggs. Additionally, Peirce gets hydroponic lettuce for the salad bar. Hydroponic produce is produce grown in an environment using only water, rather than soil, to grow the vegetables. “A big chunk of our local food is in the dairy group,” said AVI Sustainability Assistant Charlotte Graham ’13, who refers to herself on Peirce’s social media platforms as “the local foods girl.” “The milk up there in the dispensers, the two-percent and skim milk, comes from a dairy up in Wilmot, Ohio. On the weekends we have the frozen yogurt that comes from the same dairy. The actual yogurt in the salad bar area is local; that comes from Big Prairie, which is also northeast of us.”
Additionally, Kenyon elects to buy local red meat, which is rare for a college, according to Novak. However, AVI does not purchase local poultry. “It’s about two-times to three-times more expensive,” Marsh said. “It’s actually difficult to source the quantities of poultry that we would use. It’s thousands of pounds of chicken a week.”
With the many advantages of local foods comes a difficult reality: local food is not cheap. Sometimes local prices are similar to industrial prices, such as for the cream in the coffee creamer dispenser, which is only one or two more dollars per gallon, according to Graham.
But often, due to the small size of the farms and dairies, prices can be more expensive. Choosing to go local can add an additional $100,000 to the budget every year, which Marsh says is manageable for Kenyon. “But you kind of reach a point where everything you do starts costing more,” Marsh said. Because of this fact, Peirce and AVI are likely to stay at the 42-percent mark, as it is most cost-effective.
Although access to fresh foods has increased, the lack of availability can prove difficult, as many students face limited fruits and vegetables options throughout the year. Eating seasonally, or based on what is available in different growing seasons, means less variety during certain parts of the year.
“Over the course of the fall, the types of vegetables available changes, which I know gets on some people’s nerves,” Graham said. “We’re feeding people locally, so we have to eat seasonally here. But I know that some people really want their zucchini all year round.”
But AVI insists that eating seasonally has benefits. Marketing Director for AVI Rich Trimbur says that knowing what things will be available leads to better planning for AVI: “That’s sort of a unique thing that John [Marsh] does working with [AVI Executive Sous Chef] Meagan [Stewart], planning out the menus for the entire year, knowing what’s going to be in season, and that’s kind of unique to our program because we know what we’re going `to get locally and we can work with the farmers in the area,” Trimbur said.
Outside of AVI, Kenyon has worked in other ways to promote sustainability. Professor of Sociology and Director of the Rural Life Center Howard Sacks asserts that Kenyon students have played an active role in expanding sustainability in Knox County, from penning editorials in the Mount Vernon News in 2001 to creating a series of articles with the Central Ohio Restaurant Association to designing a tabletop exhibition that was display in offices, libraries and lunchrooms across Ohio.
“If you ask most people where does your food come from, they say the supermarket,” Sacks said. “They have no idea how it’s produced … But it’s a very important thing. What we’ve tried to do with all these projects is to show it’s not just a decision that affects each of us individually; it has profound effects on our local community.”
Student groups like People Endorsing Agrarian Sustainability (PEAS) are also involved in increasing knowledge of Kenyon’s local food. “As PEAS, we get to meet some local farmers in the area and sort of develop relationships with these farmers and see that side of it,” Co-President Laura Gumpert ’17 said. “Because it is so cool that we’re at this place that is so surrounded by farms and get to take advantage of it.”
Having hit the 42-percent mark, Peirce still intends to maintain its mission of sustainability and benefitting the community. “Increasing outreach to the community is fundamental to the program, according to Novak. “It wasn’t all about being the greenest campus in the United States,” she said. “We want everybody to know that we are sustainable and green. We want to help the community and I think that really shows where Kenyon [has] a good heart.”