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About Farm to College

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.[1] AVI Fresh, the college’s dining service provider, is a family-operated business in Warren, Ohio, whose corporate philosophy of supporting local economies aligns well with Kenyon’s local foods initiative. AVI works as much as possible with fresh food prepared by chefs on site, providing us with the opportunity to use local foods in Peirce Hall, our dining facility. All our beef and pork is raised and processed within fifty miles of the college. Up to 70% of our produce, depending on the season, is grown in surrounding Knox County: much of our fruit comes from an orchard only three miles from campus, and vegetables such as tomatoes, cucumbers, potatoes, broccoli and squash are grown by several Amish families nearby. Our butter, jam and honey are locally produced, as is the spelt flour that goes into pancakes, breads and desserts. We serve local yogurt, applesauce, and granola, and puffed wheat cereal made from local wheat and sweetened with local sorghum molasses. Some of our basil comes from as near as fifty feet from the kitchens, out of an herb garden beside Peirce Hall.

Kenyon College is in part buying local to facilitate the development of an alternative market for small-scale family farm products, which contributes Kenyon’s long-term effort to enhance the rural sustainability of the county. This long-term plan, an initiative called Food for Thought, has academic roots within Kenyon’s sociology department. The idea for this initiative grew out of the Family Farm Project, a three-year study exploring the significance of family farming in rural and community life. Between 1994 and 1997, students conducted intensive fieldwork in the Knox County agricultural community. This fieldwork resulted in a variety of public projects—a radio series, a website, informational literature and a school curriculum—that generated a broad public dialogue about family farming. This dialogue coincided with a growing concern throughout Knox County about changes in the community emerging with the exurban sprawl from nearby Columbus. These two conversations converged, resulting in the development of a long-range countywide plan whose primary goal was to preserve the rural character of our community. Support for small-scale family farming was seen as critical to preserving rural life.

The Family Farm Project argued that farmers and their children want to continue farming, but that many are impeded by the struggle to make a living wage from small-scale operations. Thus, if we could develop a significant, dependable market for local foods, we would support small-scale family farming and thereby preserve the rural character of Knox County. In 2000, Kenyon’s Rural Life Center began developing a concrete strategy for building a sustainable local food system. This initiative was supported in 2002 with a grant from the McGregor Fund, and it became known as Food for Thought. To help coordinate all of these efforts, we created Ohio’s first Local Food Council, which serves to identify local food opportunities throughout the county, and to help advance the county’s local food initiative.

Food for Thought is a college-wide initiative, made up of vibrant academic and extracurricular programs concerned with food, farming and rural life. A wide variety of courses throughout many academic departments deal with issues of food, agriculture and rural communities; they are included in the course catalog as a special academic initiative related to Food for Thought. Kenyon’s student body is actively involved in local agriculture, rural life and the surrounding community through clubs, service organizations, internships, and other outreach. Students and faculty are also central to the Knox County Local Food Council, working with local farmers and other community members who are invested in local agriculture. The council currently strives to promote and construct an infrastructure that supports a local food system in Knox County, incorporating local food into dining services at the county hospital, public schools, and elder care facilities, and establishing a branded marker for foods produced in Knox County to make consumers more aware of the origins of their food.

The effectiveness of Kenyon’s farm-to-college program depends on the support of a number of key players. John Marsh’s position as AVI’s Sustainability Director is crucial. In order for the program to function at all, Marsh must make connections with local vendors, but his position also represents a formal commitment to sustaining local food purchasing at AVI. Support from AVI, of course, is also critical. AVI’s corporate office not only employs Marsh full-time, but it also provides a number of accommodations for our unusual purchasing arrangements. The program also receives support from the college. Mark Kohlman, our chief business officer, works closely with AVI to oversee Kenyon’s dining program. He, too, makes local food a priority for the college by negotiating for local foods in AVI’s contract and ensuring that AVI upholds its commitment to the farm-to-college effort. Howard Sacks, sociology professor and director of the Rural Life Center, works within the college’s curriculum and community to incorporate rural life and agriculture into the Kenyon experience.

These leaders in our food system have different motivations driving their commitment to local food. For Sacks, our local food program allows the college—both as an institution and as a collection of individuals—to engage with the local agricultural community of Knox County. This helps to support and invigorate the local community and economy, and it offers students direct understanding of rural community life. Marsh’s enthusiasm comes more from a passion for small-scale agriculture. He works to transform the way that the food industry operates, to focus less on industrial economies of scale and more on individual farming communities. Marsh and Sacks both hope that our program will help foster a sustainable agricultural community in Knox County and preserve the rural way of life.

While Kenyon’s farm-to-college program addresses broad college and community goals, it is nonetheless practical because we have found a way to support our local economy while also keeping costs low. Kohlman values the program because it allows the college to provide high quality food to students, while remaining economically feasible for the college. Over time, we have established buying patterns and systems that actually make it more economical to purchase much of our food locally. In some cases, locally produced food is inherently cheaper than what we can buy from a large-scale distributor, especially considering that it is of higher quality. AVI also makes efforts to reduce costs in the dining hall by adjusting menus and reducing food waste.

Kohlman also appreciates the program’s efforts to preserve the rural communities of Knox County because the college is so tied to the surrounding area. The majority of Kenyon’s faculty and staff live in the community, and many are farmers themselves. By counteracting the exurban sprawl observed by the Rural Life Center’s outreach between 1994 and 1997, the college helps preserve the communities it relies on. Likewise, the rural atmosphere is a central part of the Kenyon experience that the trustees, as well as Kohlman, want to maintain.

Another significant advantage of local food is that it allows us to provide higher quality food for students. The food is fresher because it travels much shorter distances, and it is healthier because it is produced with fewer chemicals, as there is no need to preserve it for transportation. The food we buy from local sources is thus fresher, healthier, and often cheaper than what we could buy from Sysco, our industrial distributor. Food quality is a big concern for AVI. One priority of any dining service is the quality of food it is serves, and local food is a cost-effective way to provide higher quality food that is also rooted in the community. In addition to providing higher quality food, our program has also become something of a marketing tool for AVI’s corporate office, and the company has been able to implement similar local food programs at some of its other accounts.

Kenyon defines “local” in terms of concentric circles. We first try to find local sources within Knox County (about a twenty-five mile radius), and then look within fifty miles, and outward to a one hundred mile radius. About 34% of the food we purchase locally comes from within the county itself. We measure our 34% in terms of the percentage of money spent on food in the dining hall. Other institutions may define local by the number of dishes that contain even one local ingredient; but Kenyon has found that it is more transparent to measure local food in terms of money spent within the community, because one of the main purposes of our local food system is to help support the agriculture community and local economy.

Kenyon is one among many colleges and universities in the nation that are trying to reconnect with the agricultural communities in their area. Institutions undertake local food programs for many reasons, including concerns for the environment, the local economy, agricultural sustainability, and healthy, fresh food. Farm-to-College is becoming an increasingly prominent movement in higher education, and several organizations have emerged to support it. The Community Food Security Coalition, which advocates for sustainable food systems in communities across North America, began to collect a catalogue of farm-to-college programs in 2004.[2] The Real Food Challenge, founded in 2007, empowers students to enact change in the national food system by urging their colleges to shift toward “real food,” which is “locally- or community-based, fair, ecologically sound, and humane.”[3] Each college works with local food in a way that makes the most sense for its individual culture, region and needs. We intend to give an idea of how Kenyon’s farm-to-college program works, not necessarily as a model to be implemented elsewhere, but as a paradigm to show the basic systems that are critical in a local food program and how Kenyon manages them.

This paper is the result of a summer long internship in which we worked closely with Marsh to learn about our local food program. We accompanied him on daily trips to farms, produce auctions, and other providers, and met many of the vendors. In addition to helping with his daily responsibilities, we were able to visit an Amish and Mennonite family-farming conference, the Knox County Fair, and the facilities where our meat is processed to see steers and hogs slaughtered. We also helped with Marsh’s administrative duties, learning about his record-keeping systems. We spent a lot of time in the dining hall itself, talking with chefs and staff, stacking and organizing food in the coolers, and even preparing basil from our herb garden to make pesto. During our internship, we kept field notes of our experiences, and the following semester we composed this paper in an independent study with Professor Howard Sacks.

We hope to provide a 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 program. We have broken our discussion into five parts. First, we explore the issues of acquisition from interactions with local farmers, and the relationships required in that sort of work. Our second section discusses distribution and processing, including value-added products, meat processing, and other secondary food products. Section three describes the process after the food arrives in the dining hall, including personnel issues, preparation and service, and student awareness. The fourth section details the ways in which the local food program extends into college and community life. We have included a fifth section about economics to explain the financial intricacies of a local food program.


[1] Figures presented for Kenyon purchases are drawn from an ongoing database maintained by AVI sustainability coordinator John Marsh.

[2] farmtocollege.org

[3] realfoodchallenge.org

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