YOU ARE WHERE YOU EAT: Dining halls often conjure up images of steam tables stacked with gray meats, gooey side dishes, and salad bars spilling over with iceberg lettuce. At Vassar’s All Campus Dining Center (ACDC), students nosh on pizza topped with homemade sauce from local tomatoes and basil, enjoy omelets made from cage-free eggs, and pour hormone-free milk on their cereal, knowing it came from cows that graze in the Hudson Valley.
“Whenever possible, we will purchase from local farms, markets, and dairies,” says Ken Oldehoff, director of marketing and sustainability for Campus Dining. “We’ve come to see how buying food grown where you live preserves the rural nature of the area, keeps pesticide use to a minimum, and keeps money in the local economy.” The initiative began with a 2002 farm-to-college pilot program through Cornell University, which served to strengthen ties between Vassar and local farmers, bringing fresh, locally grown ingredients to campus. With the help of Oldehoff (who, at the start of the program, often spent weekends loading up his car with pounds of produce from nearby farms), Vassar was able to serve everything from gazpacho made with local tomatoes and cilantro, to squash, lettuce, cantaloupe, apples, cider, salsa, and honey. “People think that eating local is limiting, but it’s not,” says Oldehoff who continues to expand Vassar’s list of ingredients and suppliers each semester. The college’s produce commitment also struck a chord with the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals who, in 2005, named Vassar one of the top 10 best vegetarian and vegan-friendly college and dining services.
More recently, Vassar garnered the attention of celebrity chef Michel Nischan, a pioneer in organic and local cuisine, who has also partnered with Paul Newman. Nischan and Green Wave, an organization that promotes sustainability and healthy eating through local farmers, educators, and activists, sought out Vassar for its farm-to-college pilot project. During his visit to Vassar, Nischan was a judge at the Big Sauce Challenge, a competition that pitted aspiring student chefs against each other, providing them with a basket of ingredients as they each battled it out to prepare the winning sauce. The Iron Chef-like challenge kicked off local foods week, which culminated with the annual harvest meal, featuring a menu of nothing but local food (students are challenged to eat local all week).
“We’re six years into this and it’s really taken off,” says Maureen King, senior director of campus dining. “We’ve been able to offer so much without having to increase the price.” According to King, Green Wave’s program finally makes it possible to offer local foods year-round. Every week, the college receives 100 gallons of tomato sauce, 60 gallons of pizza sauce, 20 pounds of corn, 35 pounds each of carrots and onions, as well as apples. The produce will be frozen locally and delivered to Vassar, making available year-round homemade soup bases and fruit for desserts. Chef Nischan’s healthy recipes will also be prepared, including his pizza sauce and salsa.
“I think everything Dining Services does in terms of local foods is well received and the meals just taste better,” says Nate Silver ’10, chair of the Food Committee, which meets regularly with the dining staff to share student feedback. “Students want to eat locally and support the farmers of the Hudson Valley. They’re not only happier because their food tastes better, but because they can feel better about their food.”
“Sustainability builds community, and eating locally is a part of that,” adds local foods intern Jessica Mueller-Pearson ’08. “It’s about making meals as a community, rather than mass feeding sessions. When you have that connection with your food and your local community, you just feel better.”