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Kenyon’s Local Food Programs

Kenyon College leads the nation in farm-to-college programs. We currently purchase 38% of the food served in our dining hall from local sources, and we expect to expand. Our program is motivated by a number of factors. We hope to foster a sustainable agricultural community in Knox County and preserve the rural way of life. This effort enables us to provide higher quality food for students while keeping costs low. In some cases, locally produced food is inherently cheaper than what we can buy from a large-scale distributor, especially considering its higher quality. We offer this case study of a successful farm-to-college program in order to help other institutions that are trying to begin or expand their local food programs.

The key to ensuring reliability in a local food system lies in the face-to-face relationships formed between the institution and its individual producers.  At Kenyon, the relationships we form with our producers are not mere business transactions; they are friendships built upon integrity, trust, and mutual support. There must be a designated person who goes out and forms these producer relationships; at Kenyon, this is the job of our sustainability director.  Our sustainability director works closely with producers during the winter to help them thoroughly systematize their production for the following season, and he is constantly coordinating and communicating with them. Click to read more about how Kenyon sources its local food.

Student Involvement

Kenyon’s local food system is also supported extracurricularly by our student body. People Endorsing Agrarian Sustainability (PEAS) is one of the largest student organizations on campus. PEAS’ primary goals are to spread awareness of local food throughout the student body and to provide a link between Kenyon students and members of our surrounding agricultural community. Members of PEAS meet regularly with food service staff to advocate for local foods in the dining hall and to help the food service staff with local food signage and other means of educating their peers. PEAS also brings large groups of students on organized tours of area farms, and it has a system whereby smaller groups of students can sign up to work regularly with farmers. Click to read more about our academic programs and student farming opportunities.

Building New Infrastructure: Peirce Hall

Peirce Hall, Kenyon’s dining facility, was renovated in 2008; many of the changes were made specifically to accommodate the use of local foods. Many cafeteria-style kitchens have limited space for the preparation for local food, as their model involves emptying prepared food into warming trays. In Peirce, however, an expanded prep kitchen on the lower level allows chefs and cooks to use far more fresh, local food, simply because there is space available where they can prepare it. This emphasis on cooking with fresh ingredients is carried over into the servery. There are five “stations” that serve different meal options, though all are not always open at the same time. Each station is equipped with some means of preparing food in the actual servery, right in front of the students. For example, one station has a brick oven for baking pizza and breads; another has a six-burner stove where students can find a variety of pasta dishes, soups, and omelets made to order.

Click to read more about Peirce Hall.

Developing Personal Relationships

Any institutional food system that wants to begin supporting local farmers must have a designated person who goes out and forms the relationships with producers. AVI’s Sustainability Director, John Marsh, lies at the heart of Kenyon’s local food movement. His position as defined includes several components: identifying local producers, transporting much of the food, and working with various administrative and financial matters on a regular basis. Marsh’s personal qualities are well suited to the job. He’s a talker: he genuinely enjoys conversing with people, which is critical when it comes to forming and sustaining relationships with our producers. Whether asking a producer about their kids or the progress of their tomatoes, or inquiring about the chemicals sprayed on their neighbor’s cornfields, Marsh is both approachable and easy going. As a farmer himself, Marsh can relate to our producers, and he knows what to ask them and how to keep a genuine relationship going. As Marsh puts it, “You gotta be able to talk the talk and walk the walk, or they’ll see right through you.” The importance of having a dependable and qualified individual to foster relationships with our producers cannot be over emphasized, especially for ensuring reliability and quality of local food sources. Click to read more about developing personal relationships.

Processing Local Food

Processing is another key component of Kenyon’s local food infrastructure. We source many types of food locally, not only produce. These foods often require some sort of processing before they are ready to be served in the dining hall. Processing ranges from the preservation of foods (by pickling, for example) to the slaughtering and butchering of animals.

Many of our processors are family operations that produce “value-added” products for us. We buy our pickles and applesauce from Wilma Hershberger, an Amish woman who employs neighborhood girls in the cannery in her home. During peak growing season in July and August, we buy cucumbers and beets at auction and drop them off to be pickled. They are usually ready the next day. In the autumn, we bring apples from the local orchard where we buy most of our fruit, and the women make our applesauce. Before Kenyon began purchasing applesauce, these women had no income after cucumbers and beets went out of season. Click to read more about how we process and store local food.

Does Local Cost More?

Many institutions that consider buying local are reluctant to do so given the common misconception that local food sourcing is more expensive than industrial food sourcing. Over half of the colleges who participated in the farm-to-college survey conducted by the Community Food Security Coalition reported that local products cost more on average.[1] Yet this doesn’t always have to be the case. At Kenyon, we have established a system of food acquisition whereby it’s nearly as economical to buy local as it is to purchase through industrial sourcing. Click to read more about the economic viability of local food.