From Local Farms to Dining Hall
By Buzz McClain
The mushrooms are from Pennsylvania. The greens are from Maryland. The tofu is from a bean sprout plant in Springfield, just 14 miles away from Mason’s Fairfax Campus.
And that’s the point. The intent of Mason Dining and the company contracted to prepare and serve it, Sodexo, is clear: closer, fresher, healthier food on campus, giving everyone an opportunity to be a locovore—someone who eats food grown locally.
It’s not easy, it’s not cheap, and “it’s been a bit painful,” says Mason’s executive chef Peter Schoebel, but gradually the food served to students, faculty, and employees is getting “greener,” and not just the kale (which is from Owings Mills, Maryland, by the way).
Bread, dairy, blueberries, cucumbers, corn, eggplant, apples, greens, and herbs are delivered from producers within 200 miles of Mason, most of them closer than 75 miles from the suburban campus.
Mason currently receives locally produced food from 33 regional farms, accounting for 9 percent of Mason’s food budget, says Benjamin McElhaney, the Mason Dining sustainability coordinator who serves as a liaison among the school, the farmers, and Sodexo. McElhaney is working to increase those numbers, but to do so he needs to surmount several obstacles.
One of those is cost. Even though locally grown food is not trucked in from great distances—including international sources— transportation costs are higher.
“It should be the other way around,” McElhaney says, “but it’s not.” In fact, it is considerably more expensive. He is authorized to pay 10 percent higher over the national price for locally produced food, a number he’d like to lower. “I don’t want to cause students to spend $50 more a year on their meal plans for local food,” he says.
The regional vendors are heavily vetted and closely monitored, says Chef Schoebel. “I always have this talk with students who ask why we can’t just pick up anything sold at a farmer’s market. It has to be traceable to its origins. My number one priority is safe food.”
Approved vendors follow Food and Drug Administration procedures outlined in the process called Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points. “We have to know how it was grown, how it was packed, how it was shipped—and it has to be tracked,” Schoebel says. “The single biggest problem is the farmers don’t want to carry the necessary liability insurance.”
Keeping Mason’s food safe requires a massive obligation. Southside alone feeds 13,000 people a week; the food court and the Bistro in the Johnson Center account for another 55,000. In all, Sodexo serves 3.5 million diners a year on the Mason campuses.
Eating local has the added benefit of saving small regional farms, such as the ones providing produce to Mason, suggests John Turenne, president of the consulting firm Sustainable Food Systems.
The demand for local food has provided an opportunity for small and mid-sizegrowers. Consequently, he says, “It has also helped bring farming back to life. As older farmers give up the farm for one reason or another, there is a new crop of younger farmers that is rapidly growing in number and farming in urban locations, which makes local food readily available.”