|Farm to Cafeteria Luncheon: Good eats and good economics
RELEASED: Oct. 20, 2005
DANVILLE, KYCentre College's first-ever Farm to Cafeteria luncheon on Tuesday, Oct. 11, was by all accounts a resounding—and appetizing—success. An overflow crowd of students, faculty and staff packed the Nichols Dining Room of Cowan Dining Commons to enjoy meals provided by local producers and to hear presentations by Bob Perry, a former chef who oversees Kentucky state resort park restaurants, and Mac Stone and Pete Cashel, two local farmers who work on marketing locally grown products. Roy Platt, Sodexho Food Services manager at Cowan, was also present and answered questions after the luncheon.
The event was organized by Rick Axtell, associate professor of religion, and Berea Ernst, a 2003 Centre graduate who works for Community Farm Alliance (CFA), a statewide grassroots organization committed to family-scale farming.
Ernst says she became interested in the issues addressed by CFA in an unlikely place—Mexico. While with the Centre in Mexico program her junior year, she says she saw firsthand the negative effects the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) had on rural economies, and realized the same policies—the imposition of "free markets from the top down"—were responsible for problems much closer to home. The economy of her own town of Burkesville in Cumberland County, Ky. had suffered because NAFTA encouraged the town's textile mills to seek cheaper labor elsewhere—ironically, in Mexico. In both the U.S. and Mexico, says Ernst, current economic models leave rural communities with little control over their own economies, and few economic options. That experience, she says, "raised questions in my mind—what does support growth and development of rural communities?"
Ernst discussed her questions with Axtell, who was the program director for her Centre-in-Mexico semester. Axtell, a longtime member of CFA, suggested she look into the organization. Ernst did some research and decided to track down the executive director at a conference. The result was a conversation that led to a two-day-a-week internship for her senior year. This summer, Ernst returned to CFA's Frankfort office as a full-time rural organizer.
Her job duties include protecting Ky. House Bill 611, which CFA was instrumental in passing. It established the Agricultural Development Fund to help farmers diversify from tobacco through what CFA says is "a democratic, people-driven process for spending the first phase of tobacco settlement monies."
She also promotes CFA's vision for a Locally Independent Food Economy (LIFE), or local food systems initiative. "The basic idea is to create a system where people grow and eat food closer to home," says Ernst. "The biggest obstacles are marketing and infrastructure. One potential market is with institutional food providers: public schools, nursing homes, state parks, hospitals—and colleges."
Axtell believes the Centre Farm to Cafeteria program has enormous potential. "This is an exciting development for Centre that would make us a local leader in this trend that is sweeping other parts of the nation," he says. "The Farm to Cafeteria program has appeal from a number of angles related to its underlying rationale, including decreasing fuel consumption and transportation costs; helping local farmers find consistent markets as they seek viable alternatives to the tobacco economy, thereby preserving rural cultures; connecting students' lives and learning to local producers; enhancing the quality and freshness of our meals; and finding alternatives to an increasingly centralized global trade system. This is an idea whose time has come."
As regards Centre, Ernst says Tuesday's luncheon is just the first step in a broader Farm to Centre initiative. Participation in Tuesday's meal by faculty, students and staff showed widespread interest in the idea of getting locally farmed food into the Cowan kitchen on a regular basis. Questionnaires from the event showed that there was wide agreement on the connection between eating locally produced food, personal health, and the health of the local community. In addition, they showed that students were happy with the local food for its freshness and taste.
Sodexho, the campus food service provider, is supportive of the idea, and has an excellent track record of innovative approaches to serving locally grown food. Sodexho recently won a "Keeper of the Vision" award for offering sustainable products at colleges from Food Alliance Midwest. The Student Government Association was also strongly behind the meal, as were Centre President Roush and his wife, Susie. Mrs. Roush even brought a guest, Florentino Morlote, an organic baker and proprietor of the Kountry Kupboard in Harrodsburg. President Roush could not attend until the end of the meal, but he filled a plate and chatted with the participants.
"The luncheon was a public way to announce that this is something we would like to work toward, and to give people a sample so they can see the benefits for themselves," says Ernst. "Now there's broad support and people who are in leadership positions are emerging to say 'hey, I want to play a part in this.' So the next steps will be getting these people together, possibly in a committee, and getting them to define what it is they want in a farm-to-school program and what steps we need to take to get us there.
"There are so many opportunities for students to take a part in developing a farm-to-school program. Centre has a long history of volunteering in the community, and this is one more way to develop a relationship with the place where the college resides. It's practical, hands-on experience for students who are developing their own ideas about how to make change in the world. I think great colleges and universities—and Centre is one of these—realize that the education isn't just what happens inside the classroom, it's in the environment in which you live while you're there—in the architecture, the campus grounds, and the diverse people you meet, and it should be your food as well."
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