Going green: sustainable, fair and local eating on campus

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Was the food you got at the Marketplace earlier today real? This question will now be much easier to answer thanks to the new posters and signs that Campus Dining has posted around the Marketplace, which they hope will raise awareness of the sustainably-sourced foods available on campus. This effort coincides with the annual celebration of Earth Week.

According to the national Real Food Challenge organization, a food item served at the Marketplace is considered to be real if it meets at least one of four detailed categories: local and community-based, fair, humane and/or ecologically sound.

Occidental is one of many educational institutions—including schools like Cornell, Macalister, Middlebury and Bard—that have pledged to incorporate real food in their dining programs as part of the Real Food Challenge, which began in 2008. Participating schools must pledge to serve at least 20 percent real food, but with the goal of becoming a national leader in the movement, Occidental decided to pledge to serve 30 percent.

Challenge participants can determine their qualifying percentage using the “real food calculator” found on the organization’s website. As of this year, Occidental has achieved fifteen percent real food, according to the calculator.

“There are definitely schools that have a higher percentage than fifteen percent, but not many, and there are only a couple that have commitments higher than we do,” Dylan Bruce (junior), the Campus Dining intern for sustainability, said.

As part of his role as the Marketplace Intern, Bruce heads the effort of tallying all the food produced at the Marketplace and entering it into the calculator. That includes researching which types of distributors and products comply with the Real Food Challenge so that they may be counted toward Occidental’s commitment.

As a part of this effort, Associate Vice President for Hospitality Services Amy Munoz, with the help of Bruce and past sustainability interns, has established a farm-to-college program in the Marketplace that more directly brings produce from local farms to Branca Patio tables.

Bruce, who has also presented for the Real Food Challenge at conferences, such as the California Higher Education Food Summit and Real Food Challenge regional retreats, is firm in his belief that real food is better.

“When you’re eating something on your plate that was picked the day before at a local farm, rather than something that could’ve been picked months ago in South America and was ripened using chemicals, you can taste the difference,” he said.

Providing Real Food for Occidental

Occidental could not have reached the halfway mark in achieving its real food goals without its providers—small-scale, sustainable farmers.

Joel Stehly is a third-generation California farmer from San Diego County who harvests avocados, Valencia oranges, strawberries, blueberries and more. He jokingly noted special strategies he uses to address some of the challenges associated with organic farming.

“I listen to a lot of Jimmy Buffet to keep me calm, and a little bit of reggae. Other than that, no, it’s just farming,” Stehly said. “It’s no different than anything my dad did or anyone in between. Organic farming is the same thing.”

Stehly believes that an organic farm, which refrains from the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers, runs similarly to any other small business.

Another producer that Occidental uses is Lakeside Organic Gardens, which owns almost 1,200 certified organic acres in the Pajaro Valley in Central California, as well as 600 acres in the Imperial Valley in Southern California.

“We try to work with mother nature instead of against her,” Lindsey Roberts, farmer and director of marketing and communications for Lakeside Organic Gardens, said. “One strategy we utilize to address the challenges associated with organic agriculture is that we introduce beneficial instincts that can eat pests instead of using pesticides.”

It is farmers like Stehly and Roberts that the Real Food Challenge benefits. According to their website, the goal of the organization “is to shift $1 billion of existing university food budgets away from industrial farms and junk food and towards local and community-based, fair, ecologically sound and humane food sources—what we call ‘real food’—by 2020.”

However, even with a committed community of farmers supporting their initiative, Marketplace staff have faced no shortage of challenges in keeping the college on the right track.

CHALLENGES OF INCORPORATING REAL FOOD

According to Bruce, one challenge that is particular to the LA area is that, to qualify as local, a producer’s total income must be less than one percent than that of the industry leader and be located within 250 miles of the institution. While Southern California is rich in agribusiness and large factory farms, it has very few small, family farms, and the ones that exist are at an inherent disadvantage.

“Sustainable food is more expensive just across the board because the production is not as streamlined, and it’s usually done by smaller farms that don’t have the economy of scale to do real small margins, they need to have a little bit more of a margin on each item,” Bruce said. “The challenge is price—being able to integrate real food into meals without making the end plate price prohibitive.”

Due to their typically smaller size, sustainable farms are incapable of fulfilling the demand of the area’s immense population. This contributes to inconsistent supply and high prices. This has led Campus Dining to depend more on humane, fair or ecologically sound food-sources instead. However, issues with supply are not the only challenges Bruce and the campus dining staff must address.

The Real Food Challenge organization and its framework also exists as a challenge that both Bruce and Munoz noted. The organization has both full-time and part-time staff, but the bulk of the challenge is organized by students like Bruce and by recently graduated students who serve as regional field organizers.

“There’s a little bit of a problem with turnover because the bulk of the energy and momentum, and really the bulk of the work, is done by students pushing the envelope,” Bruce said. “Students turn over in four years and Real Food Organizers [the regional leadership] turnover in one year, so there’s a little bit of a problem with continuity there.”

Munoz also noted that the structure of the organization can sometimes be an obstacle, particularly in terms of choosing products that meet changing, program-specific real food metrics.

“All along we’ve been following the metrics, which have changed, forcing us to change with them,” she said. “The challenge with the metrics is that, we can be doing the right thing, but the food still doesn’t meet the Real Food Challenge criteria. We have wonderful olive oil producers here in California, but we can buy olive oil from Italy and they still don’t give us the points, which is a shame.”

Meanwhile, Bruce recalls instances where consecutive Real Food organizers interpreted and applied guidelines differently.

The habits and accountability of the student body present a different type of challenge. A recent Campus Dining working group found that the Real Food Challenge needed more recognition around campus in order to succeed, according to Munoz and Bruce, who sat on a subcommittee of the working group.

“Oxy has not embraced the term ‘real food,’ because everything that we eat and everything that we serve you is [technically] real food, whether or not it meets Real Food Challenge criteria,” Munoz said. “[Real Food] is not a term Oxy has come to appreciate, and so we’re looking for a new way to express it.”

One method they’ve undertaken is the aforementioned signs that have been implemented in the Marketplace this week. They read, “Oxy’s Own Sustainably Sourced,” which indicates that the food is real, as well as new versions of signs that have been on display this year, indicating exactly which local farm the food came from.

Still, the fact that Occidental uses a debit system—where students pay per item, rather than paying a standard rate for a buffet—magnifies this challenge, and students, faculty and other community members essentially vote with each purchase they make. The campus dining staff can only prepare what they know will have a good chance of being eaten completely by the students.

“In a debit system, it is democracy at work, it is capitalism at work,” Munoz said. “Generally the food that meets the Real Food Challenge criteria is more expensive, so you vote with your dollars every day. That’s why we’re going to put it out there and tell you what’s good about that food and why you should buy it—we figure if we tell you, you’ll make those choices.”

Aside from being environmentally friendly and delicious, food meeting the Real Food Challenge comes with the benefit of supporting local and community organizations. Due to the drought and continued pressure from industrial agribusiness, business is hard for small-time California farmers. However, consumer demand is growing—in particular, programs such as the Real Food Challenge have garnered support for smaller operations like Lakeside and Stehly Farm.

“It’s sad really,” Bruce said. “It’s the classic death of the American family farm, the small businesses that just aren’t making it anymore. I think that organizations and movements like the Real Food Challenge have a chance to fix that dynamic and say ‘Hey, we actually want to be supporting many farms instead of just one.’”

A HISTORY OF FARM-TO-COLLEGE PROGRAMS

Occidental’s interest in working with famers began long before the commencement of the Real Food Challenge. The history of farm-to-college at Occidental goes back to the 1990s, beginning with the school’s Market Basket program, which was instituted before the Marketplace even existed in its current form.Through the Market Basket Program, student organizers worked out a direct arrangement with farmers at a local farmer’s market. They would go to the market every other week to pick up a bag of seasonal produce, which students had paid for in advance. The bags were then distributed to participating students and faculty, and also offered to community members at large to improve local access to fresh produce.

However, many students complained about a lack of cooking and storage facilities on campus, according to Professor Robert Gottlieb, director of the Urban and Environmental Policy Institute. On-campus students had little room to store the contents of their bags and insufficient kitchen access. In addition, the contents of the basket were highly unpredictable and the baskets were not always filled with a variety of produce—one week, for example, a student might receive a bag full of kale and nothing else. Other students simply didn’t know what to do with a bag full of fresh produce. In the end, the program was discontinued, leaving students once again without a reliable source of farm-fresh produce on campus.

After the Marketplace opened in 1999, students became interested in setting up another farm-to-college program at Occidental, according to Munoz. In particular, one student was very passionate about bringing an organic salad bar to campus and was awarded the Campus Ecology Fellowship, sponsored by Munoz, to explore the possibility in 2001.

“He deployed students all over southern California to go out and bring produce to the salad bar,” Munoz recalled. However, in those days, like now, factory farming dominated the agriculture industry in California, making the supply of smaller, more sustainable operations difficult to access.

“What we determined then was that the supply networks just did not exist for us to be able to do this on a regular basis,” Munoz said, referencing a continuing challenge the Marketplace staff face.

Though the prototype salad bar was short-lived, students continued to express their interest in establishing a more sustainable farm-to-college program at Occidental over the next few years. In 2008, Munoz created the Marketplace intern for Sustainability position.

“Students were still coming to me with a lot of these questions and challenges,” Munoz said. “I felt that they could best be addressed by a student-to-student relationship.”

In creating the position, Munoz hoped that students would be able to address and hopefully help solve the problem of how to reliably get farm-fresh and organic produce into the Marketplace. The first Marketplace intern approached Munoz about the Real Food Challenge, with the intention of bringing sustainable, fresh and more diverse foods to the Marketplace.

MAKING IT WORK: CHEF MONTYGIERD

“It’s easy to fall into the habit of just walking through the Marketplace,” Bruce said. “‘Oh, there’s the grill. Oh, there’s the chef’s corner. Oh, there’s the salad bar. Oh, it’s all the same, I’m going to go somewhere else.’ But if you really think about what you’re getting, it’s really high quality.”

Occidental hired a new head chef several years ago, Chef Michael “Meesh” Montygierd, who Bruce believes prepares meals for the student body at a bargain price.

“[For example], the sustainable golden skin trout that we’re serving with the Meyer lemon cream sauce and a local harvest medley—you’d pay 20 bucks at Eagle Rock Public House or at the York, at least,” Bruce said. “It’s high quality food. Meesh comes from a fine dining background and he really does bring that strongly to his work at Occidental.”

Bruce says that since Montygierd’s arrival, many students and other community members have commented on the increased food quality. For Montygierd, a soft-spoken, excitable Highland Park native, cooking with real food for a large population poses an additional set of challenges. Montygierd though, addresses them with enthusiasm and optimism.

“The parameters to fulfill the needs for [the Real Food Challenge] are pretty difficult, I have to go to my vendor, get my vendor to tell me where it came from,” Montygierd said. “I’ll get something that I think fulfills it, but sometimes it doesn’t.”

Montygierd admits that there were several times during his first year that produce purchased did not meed the guidelines. Moreover, as Bruce and Munoz both noted, the supply of the real food can be unpredictable.

“The winter fruit are starting to slow down right now, so lemons, blood oranges, navel [oranges] are actually getting to the end of their season, but I haven’t seen the spring vegetables jump up,” Montygierd said.

He explained that, though the majority of the time lettuces arrived normally, the providing farmer sometimes has to cancel. In contrast, wild arugula—which Montygierd orders regularly—isn’t available 75 percent of the time.

Montygierd says that he emphasizes seasonality in his cooking, and one of his talents is his ability to adapt to seasonal changes in food supply. He creates dishes utilizing produce that is readily available in a particular season, rather than selecting and procuring a hard list of widely available ingredients—and he does not sacrifice taste in his effort to adapt to seasonality.

As evidence, Montygierd said that more off-campus students than ever had a meal plan this semester, and he has had to increase the volume of his orders of some products by up to 50 percent in order to keep up with rising demand.

Despite this, Montygierd remains humble about his accomplishments.

“I’m a chef because I like being in the back of the house,” Montygierd said. “People ask me ‘Why don’t you want to be a celebrity chef and be on TV?’ I say there’s a reason for that, if I wanted to be in front of everybody and do that, I’d be an actor. I’m a chef. I like being behind walls, I’m kind of a recluse.”

He noted that he preferred enthusiastic reviews as a form of validation. However, while he admits that he enjoys hearing feedback from students, staff and faculty who eat at the Marketplace, Montygierd has larger goals for his cooking.

“The way I’ve approached this from the beginning was, I feel like this is my classroom,” Montygierd said. “We start off the year with chicken nuggets and fries, but I try to develop your palates to be able to eat worldwide. We’re supposed to be the leaders of the future, so when we travel internationally and go to other places, I want you to say, ‘Oh wow, we had that at Oxy’ and be more open to trying it.”

STUDENT REVIEWS

On a recent Thursday night at the Marketplace’s Organic Bar, Montygierd served up the aforementioned golden skin trout with Meyer lemon cream sauce, along with rice pilaf, a local harvest medley which included fava beans, carrots, peas and two types of beets.

Montygierd, who plans for the Organic Bar weeks in advance, was again providing students with a full meal that met the requirements of the Real Food Challenge. But for many diners, this begs the question: does the food actually taste good?

“Fire,” Divya Sarathy (junior) said. “It was so good, I had trout for the first time. I also liked the carrots.”

Lencia Kebede (junior) agreed with this sentiment, also complimenting the carrots, in particular.

In fact, of the 11 students interviewed over the course of a half-hour, all gave positive reviews. Montygierd said that the first two times he prepared the golden skin trout it hardly sold at all—partly, he suspected, because college students were unfamiliar with the fish. Despite this sentiment, the students interviewed complimented the trout more highly than any other aspect of the meal, regardless of how familiar they were with the fish.

For veterans of the organic bar, like Duncan Brown (junior), Thursday was just business as usual.

“The trout was surprisingly good, the sauce was creamy and added to the nice texture of it,” Brown said. “I look forward to the organic bar every week.”

Spencer Goldman (sophomore), too, wishes the Marketplace offered it more often.

“It was delicious tonight,” sophomore Spencer Goldman said. “They should have [the organic bar] every night of the week.”