Have food, will travel–but not far

College and university dining halls have been looking at their menus to find ways to reduce their impacts on the environment. By providing more local foods, these schools are simultaneously working to reduce food miles, encourage sustainable agricultural practices and cut down on food waste. To make this happen, schools partner with nearby farms, ranches and co-ops to supplement food products they had traditionally received from their contract food vendors. These “farm-to-college” programs boost the local economy, cut fossil fuels and provide students with a “fresh” perspective on food.

On December 28, 2007, Alfred State College’s Center for Organic and Sustainable Agriculture (COSA) was awarded a $29,320 grant to create a self-sustaining business model in which local farmers provide fresh agricultural products for use by the college’s dining services. The COSA grant, the proposal for which was co-written by Matthew Harbur, COSA’s Director, and Staci Curry, market manager for the nearby Angelica Farmers’ Market, was “one of seven statewide grants within the Food and Agriculture Industry Development (FAID) Program,” explains Curry. The FAID program supports innovative approaches to the research, development, processing, marketing and distribution of agricultural products in New York State.

“A key feature of the grant,” says Curry, “is funding for training and assistance that will be available for all [farm] participants.” The project recruited 16 different growers, all within a 50-mile radius of the ASC campus. These growers supply seasonal produce, from sweet corn and gourds, to green peppers and pumpkins, and the college agrees to buy the produce at competitive market prices.

In return, the growers receive a series of 15 workshops from the College, specifically designed for their local conditions, covering weed management, soil health, season extension, low- and no-chemical-input production, plasticulture, institutional food preparation, and business planning, all led by Matthew Harbur, who is an assistant professor in Agriculture and Horticulture at ASC in addition to serving as COSA’s director.

The first crops for the program were planted in June 2008 by the 16 selected growers, and since then production and delivery have been fairly steady. The food that comes from the local growers, however, arrives to campus by slightly unconventional means. “Since I drive in to work [at ASC] from my home in the village of Angelica,” explains Dr. Robert Curry, “the farmers drop their produce off at my house, and I take it in to Alfred and deliver it.” The distance between Alfred and Angelica is about 19 miles. “This developed as the most environmentally responsible way to make the delivery,” adds Dr. Curry. It’s a move that saves the most fuel now, though it may become unsustainable over time.

Assessing what are the most environmentally responsible methods for transporting foods from “field to plate” is what Rich Pirog has been doing for years. Pirog is the Associate Director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University. “Based on studies,” he says, “fresh produce delivered into the upper Midwest travels about 1,500 miles.” (That figure has been extrapolated by the media and other studies to represent a general average of “food miles” within the United States, though the study was actually limited to a very small food production region around Iowa.)

Another of Pirog’s studies considers how much CO2 emissions would be reduced if Iowans received 10 percent more of their fresh produce from local and regional sources, delivered in a light-duty truck. The study estimated that the 10 percent increase would lead to an annual CO2 emission reduction of 6.7 to 7.9 million pounds, or the equivalent of saving about 350,000 gallons of fuel, which is roughly how much fuel is used each year by over 100 Iowa farms.

Although “food miles” is one indicator of the impact food production has on the environment, Pirog cautions against using it as the strongest indicator. Instead, Pirog favors examining the impact of the whole food supply chain.

The food production system, as a whole, accounts for about 17 percent of the United States’ total fossil fuel consumption. In a recent study by Christopher L. Weber and H. Scott Matthews of Carnegie Mellon University, the authors show that food consumption, per household, contributes 8.1 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions per year (a car driven 12,000 miles only produces 4.4 metric tons of emissions), with 83 percent of those emissions stemming from food production and only 11 percent from food transportation. The tons of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from food production were made up of CO2 from processing, refrigeration and cooking methods; methane and nitrous oxide, which came from fertilizer byproducts; manure management; and animal digestion.

The Weber and Matthews study concludes that by “buying local” as much as possible, a household could achieve, at maximum, about a four to five percent reduction in GHG emissions. Interestingly, when the study went further and considered the GHG “costs” of red meat and dairy, it concluded that by shifting only one day per week from red meat and dairy to a vegetable-based diet, a household would reduce GHG emissions by about five and a half percent: an amount equivalent to driving 1,160 fewer miles per year. The major implication of the study is that bigger reductions can be realized by switching the type of food eaten than shortening the distance food travels. However, shorter food-to-plate distances have other benefits, such as local economic stimulation, that were outside the purview of the study.

On July 1, 2008, the University of Montana-Missoula changed its definition of farm-to-college. “Previously we purchased foods from surrounding states,” explains Sarah Kester, the UM-Missoula dining services sustainability coordinator, “but now we’re only going to purchase foods produced entirely in the state of Montana.” The university has had a robust farm-to-college program since 2003, and offers local food selections at all of its dining locations, but now has a goal to spend 20 percent (up from 13 percent) of its $3.1 million annual food budget on local foods. This is good news for the neighbors, given that eight of the 10 poorest counties in the United States are in Montana, and all of them agricultural.

This new goal also has a positive effect on emissions: In one study the school completed, dining services found that just by supplying a year’s worth of “hamburger and French fries” meals through local sources, it would save more than 43,000 gallons of fuel and 2.9 times the amount of CO2 emissions than if they had conventionally-sourced the same ingredients.

UM-Missoula’s dining services works with about 50 different local and regional vendors and distributors. One of its larger regional suppliers is the Western Montana Growers Co-op (WMGC), based in Arlee, Montana, about 30 miles north of Missoula.

“We work with about 23 growers,” explains Mark Wehri, WMGC’s general manager, “and most everyone has been or is certified organic.” Supplying everything from honey and eggs to meats, fruits, and vegetables, co-op members drop off their products at the distribution center in Arlee, which then get delivered to various buyers by the co-op’s six-wheeled, one-ton Dodge truck.

“These growers used to deliver their foods individually,” says Wehri, “but through the co-op there’s fewer phone calls, fewer invoices, and fewer miles,” which also means fewer CO2 emissions. One of Pirog’s landmark reports, comparing the efficiencies of three different food distribution systems, confirms the value of the switch: He found that a six-wheeled truck making regional deliveries (going about 82 miles each way) was 17 times more efficient than a national semi-trailer truck, with a light-duty truck (making multiple local trips of about 21 miles each way) falling somewhere in the middle.

These farm-to-college programs are not only lowering emissions on their own, they also tend to motivate or accompany other campus-wide actions. The two most popular initiatives, along with farm-to-college programs, are recycling and composting services on campus, illustrating the colleges’ greater awareness of sustainable practices.

“The benefits of a farm-to-college program,” explains Pirog, “are that it connects students to their own food purchases; contributes, in some small ways, to the economic development of their own states; and because local foods tend to be fresher, there’s less food waste.”


See More:

Farm to College.Org

A Guide to Developing a Sustainable Food Purchasing Policy: AASHE

$2.5 Million Gift Helps Inspire Food-Awareness Initiative at Bates College: Bates College

Get People Back on the Land for Health and Peace: Campus Ecology Blog

UC Santa Cruz Celebrates 40 Years of Sustainable Agriculture and Organic Farming: UCSC

Colleges Chew on Local Food Phenomenon: The Chronicle of Higher Education

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Published: November 13, 2008