Small farms are disappearing from our local landscapes. Farmers working small-scale operations find it impossible to compete with corporate farmers, who benefit from economies of scale and are able to ship their produce around the country and sell it more cheaply than local produce. When we lose local farms, we loose open spaces, the security of a local food system, and the nutritional and taste benefits fresh produce provides. How can we support small-scale farmers in their operations? We can incorporate their products into our institutional menus, particularly into the menus of our colleges and universities.
This is what a group of students at Oberlin College (Oberlin, OH) did when in 1999 they began a campaign to increase the use of local produce by the school’s dining services. Thanks to this campaign, the Oberlin College Campus Dining Service (CDS) has been purchasing locally-grown foods since 2001. The results are significant for local farmers. In 2003, Oberlin’s Campus Dining Service spent almost $120,000 (five-percent of the total food budget) directly on local vendors; approximately 35-percent of the products purchased were organically grown. Also during 2003 CDS spent an additional $100,000 with their produce distributor Premier Produce, who purchases fresh produce from Amish produce auctions in Ohio. The results are significant for students as well; Oberlin’s students benefit from tastier food, an increased connection to the community surrounding the college, and the nutritional benefits that pre-fab food (mammoth plastic bags of shredded iceberg and cardboard containers of pre-beaten eggs, for example) simply cannot provide.
Oberlin College’s Local Foods website offers advice for parties who might want to promote the use of local produce on college campuses. Student activists are advised to: conduct research on local farms and on other schools’ local-produce programs, since school authorities will listen to a well-reasoned argument more readily than to a list of grievances; partner with a non-profit interested in sustainable agriculture for advice and support; meet regularly with administrators and food service personnel; and be patient. Farmers are encouraged to: knock on doors and let academic institutions know they are available as a vendor; be willing to adjust processing and packaging methods; and provide initial samples for free to gain credibility. Dining service administrators who are considering incorporating local produce are asked to remember that: student activists who are pushing for local produce can be asked to help make the transition work smoothly; local farmers want the opportunity to provide quality produce and should be told if their service or products are not satisfactory; and that patience is required when switching to a new system of food provision.
By purchasing from local farmers, universities and colleges help keep money in their communities, support small-scale businesses, and gain access to delicious, nutritious, fresh produce.
Contact Group: Community Food Security Coalition Farm to College Program