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Fernholz sisters at Earthrise Farm.

The University named sisters Annette and Kathleen Fernholz a 2006 Farm Family of the Year. They run a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) at Earthrise Farm in Madison, Minnesota, where shareholders financially support the production of garden vegetables, and in turn receive a box of food each week during the growing season. (See sidebar)

Eating close to home

The University is helping change the way we think about food

by Martha Coventry

From M, summer 2007

A forkful of food now travels an average of 1,500 miles to get to your plate. A lot of our food comes from much farther away, or course, like apples from New Zealand, asparagus from Argentina, and shrimp from Thailand. Even salmon from the Pacific Northwest may have first been sent to China for filleting before being shipped back the United States.

But in schools, restaurants, and kitchens all over the country, people are looking at food in a new way--with eyes focused close to home.

A spate of recent books, like Micheal Pollan's popular The Omnivore's Dilemma, Gary Paul Nabhan's Coming Home to Eat, and Barbara Kingsolver's new Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, as well as magazine articles like Time's cover story "Eating Better Than Organic," explore the wisdom and benefits of eating local foods--those grown or raised within about 100-200 miles of where you live.

With many thousands of mouths to feed each day at its various dining outlets, the University is taking the local foods movement to heart. And, thanks to some far-sighted work on the Morris campus, it is helping to change the way global food service companies do business.

Common sense The principles associated with buying locally and sustainably produced foods--meaning you preserve the health of the land for future generations--mesh well with the overall commitments of the University, such as conserving fossil fuel, helping protect the environment, and supporting the regional economy.

"If you go to a grocery store and buy organic lettuce that came in from China, like Trader Joe's sells, it doesn't make any sense in terms of environmental impact," Levine says. "A great reason to buy locally is that you're not using all the fuel to move food around. And that's an advantage."

A recent study shows that shifting just 1 percent of consumer expenditures to direct purchasing of local food products would increase farmers' income by 5 percent. Last year the Twin Cities campus alone spent $1.7 million on locally produced and sustainably grown foods.

Eating locally builds community and puts people back in touch with where their food comes from, and returning to a more "whole foods" diet--fresh fruits, vegetables, grains, and legumes, which local foods tend to be--has been shown to be beneficial in helping keep a host of ills at bay.

How to eat locally

There are several great ways to buy sustainably raised and locally grown food.

>>Go to the source. Find a farm family who offers products you're interested in and pay them a visit.

>>Frequent your local food co-op. Ask where the food comes from and about the farmers who raise it.

>>Spend a morning at a farmer's market and talk to the growers.

>>Join a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farm where you pay the grower up front to produce vegetables, fruit, meat, or dairy for you.

Several Web sites offer information on how to find food, farmers, and farmers markets in Minnesota. See Pride of the Prairie, Local Harvest, and the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.

And for a little extra fun, join people all over the country who will strive to eat only local foods during September. See Eat Local Challenge.

As for food safety, animals and produce raised locally, on a smaller scale, and by people you can actually meet on farms you can visit, helps cut down on pathogens, including harmful bacteria, and the opportunity for anyone to meddle with the food before it gets to you.

According to Allen Levine, dean of the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences (CFANS), the environment undoubtedly benefits from the smaller carbon footprint left from eating close to home. "If you go to a grocery store and buy organic lettuce that came in from China, like Trader Joe's sells, it doesn't make any sense in terms of environmental impact," Levine says. "A great reason to buy locally is that you're not using all the fuel to move food around. And that's an advantage."

But the local foods movement is struggling with how to more responsibly distribute its products, now that they are increasingly in demand. (Twenty new farmers markets have opened in central Minnesota in the past three years, for example.) Buying food close to home initially makes more sense than getting it from 1,500 miles away, but many small farmers making many trips to the city or campus to sell or deliver food still has an effect on the environment. Organizations like Food Alliance Midwest are working with farmers and food services to bring local products to customers in a more efficient way.

Setting the bar At the April 20 inauguration of UMM Chancellor Jacquie Johnson, guests enjoyed a local foods luncheon, with chickpeas from the nearby USDA research facility, wheat berries from Dry Weather Creek Farm in Milan, blue cheese made by Faribault Dairy, and ham from Pastures A Plenty in Kerkhoven. All the foods were labeled to highlight the producers.

The Morris campus is the granddaddy of local foods in the University system, largely due to the vision of Sandy Olson-Loy, vice chancellor for student affairs. And this small campus has had a big impact on how schools all over the region are feeding their students and how local farmers are making a living.

In 2001, Morris was in the process of rebidding the contract for a company to run its food service. "It seemed like the time for us to look at local foods as an economic development tool and another way to strengthen the partnerships in our region," says Olson-Loy. "We'd done some things like building a fitness center that was a campus-community partnership, but we hadn't connected much with the food and ag community that was so rich right around us in western Minnesota."

Morris wrote into its proposal that whoever got the contract had to commit to sustainably and locally grown foods. Sodexho ended up winning that contract, and the buying power of this international company is tremendous. Last year it spent nearly $12 million on food for its college and university accounts in the state.

Don Kulick is Sodexho's regional manager for Minnesota and North and South Dakota. He credits Olson-Loy and the Morris initiative with helping change his company's view of how it buys food. And that change has been profitable-featuring local foods has brought Sodexho an added $400,000 just through its higher education clients in Minnesota.

"Sandy Olson-Loy was the one who first started talking to me about sustainable, local foods and that was the critical starting point for us." says Kulick. "It's important for our company to be on the leading edge of this movement, because this is something that's not going to stop. We have to makes changes in the world, and we can make those changes in how we buy our products."

Sodexho has used this consciousness-raising experience to look at the food it provides to its K-12 accounts, too. It fries less food, provides water and juice instead of sodas, and offers fresh fruit for breaks instead of processed, sugary snacks. "If you can change a 7- to 8-year-old's relationship to food, you can change a nation," says Kulick.

Feeding a small city Larry Weger is director of University Dining Services (UDS) on the Twin Cities campus and works for Aramark, the global food service company that manages most of the campus's food outlets. Like Sodexho at Morris, Aramark plans the menus, buys and prepares the food, manages the staff, and, more and more, pays attention to larger issues of sustainability, health, and the environment.

Weger is trying to buy more vegetables from Cornercopia, the U's student-run organic farm, and cheese and ice cream from the U's Dairy Food Products department. For the past four years, he's worked closely with Sysco Foods, UDS's supplier, to identify and feature local products. "We will always default to the locally grown product if given a choice," says Weger. "More so than anything, [local foods] make sense from an ethical perspective. The whole concept of food coming from the regional area instead of moving it thousands of miles supports the overall agenda of sustainability."

Tasting the difference The Duluth campus has not yet jumped onto the local foods train, but it is offering its students buffalo burgers--which are healthier than those from conventionally raised beef--supplied by a rancher in nearby Twig. Last year it inaugurated an on-campus farmer's market, offering local fare each Wednesday afternoon in the summer.

And Crookston, although it doesn't yet serve students local foods on a regular basis, does feature them at catered events. "When we have an event, we call local farmers and let them know what we need," says Brent Melsa, head of dining services at Crookston. "Chancellor Casey wants me to start having local foods on a weekly basis starting next fall as part of the regular food service. We enjoy serving local foods to support the local farmers."

Sandy Olson-Loy has no doubts that the local foods effort is in line with the greater goals of the University. "[Our campuses] share a pride of place with their communities, and eating foods grown by people we know in these areas is a way of celebrating that pride," she says. "[The U] is committed to providing a transformational education for our students. We want to make sure they not only eat good food, but they think about the food choices they make and their impact on the environment, and about the politics of food, globally as well as locally."

And then there is simply the pleasure of an ear of sweet corn hours old, a tomato still warm from the sun, raspberries from your neighbor's patch, and fresh eggs with deep yellow yolks gathered that morning at a nearby farm or--more and more in the Twin Cities--in your own backyard. Locally grown food just tastes better.

Olson-Loy tells the story of a Morris professor running into a freshman from one of her seminars at the all-local foods dinners the campus serves each semester. "You've got to try the carrots!" the student gushed. "They're great!"

"When do you hear a first-year college student talking to you about carrots?" asks Olson-Loy.