Once the food has been prepared, it is crucial that the students are aware of the local food in the dining hall. At the moment, student awareness constitutes the next big hurdle for Kenyon’s program. There is an active group of students who are very enthusiastic about local food (see Section 4), but it seems that much of the student body is only vaguely aware that we have local food in our dining hall; they don’t know how wide-ranging our program is, or what its implications are for the greater community. Local food education is absolutely critical to the success of any farm-to-college system, for students will not support the local food program unless they understand its importance.
Labeling is a great means of communicating with students, but it can be challenging to coordinate. For the 2010-2011 academic year, AVI hired a Kenyon alumna to work as a full-time Communications Director. One of her main responsibilities was to label the food (breads and jams, for example), and she also kept the Peirce Hall Facebook page. These are ways to raise awareness for local food, but we have not yet taken full advantage of them. When she left at the end of the year, AVI did not hire a replacement, which makes it more challenging to label local food. We have found that while it is valuable to have a communications director whose position is devoted to labeling food in the servery, the chefs are also an important resource because they know best exactly which dishes contain local foods.
Labeling is currently the chefs’ responsibility, They put together the menus for each meal, and they are encouraged to mark which foods are local—for example, writing “local beef burgers” instead of simply “burgers,” or “local oats” instead of just “oatmeal.” However, the chefs have so many other responsibilities that they don’t have time to label everything comprehensively, because their priority is to prepare the food for students. The most challenging things to label, because there are simply so many items there, are in the deli line, the salad bar and the cold wells, and we have not yet found a good system for them. We continue to try to improve labeling, however: one of the best ways to make students aware of local foods, and hopefully inspire their enthusiasm and pride in our program, is to increase the visibility of local food as students put it on their plates.
There are other approaches that can raise general awareness. During the winter and early spring, when farmers have more spare time, Marsh invites them to Peirce for “Farmer Tuesdays.” He sets up a table outside the servery, where all the students pass in order to get food, and the vendors sit for a few hours at lunch and meet students. In the past, they have brought different types of soil to compare or offered samples of their products. It’s wonderful for students to see the people who produced the food they eat every day. It reinforces the importance of supporting the local economy by giving a face to local agriculture. These visits are also valuable to the farmers, because they allow them to see what happens to the products they provide for the college, to better understand the system, and to appreciate how their work impacts the students.
Marsh has also brought vendors in for more specific reasons. When he was trying to begin purchasing local yogurt, he met some resistance from AVI. At the time, we received our yogurt from Dairymens, and it was produced in Colorado and contained many additives including gelatin. Marsh invited the local yogurt producers to give a taste-test in Peirce during breakfast. We collected comments from students and asked them to compare the local yogurt to what we were serving, and the positive feedback from students provided the extra push that AVI needed to approve the purchasing of local yogurt.
Because the official menu rotation is so flexible, the chefs take advantage of social media to inform students of what will actually be served that day. A few hours before each meal, a chef posts the featured dishes on the Peirce Hall Facebook and Twitter pages. Because Facebook and Twitter have become the most reliable ways to find out what’s for dinner, many students are fans on Facebook or followers on Twitter. This wide exposure makes these social networking sites an effective way to spread awareness about local food, because students are more likely to see it. Marsh and students also send out all-student emails about the local foods that are being used in Peirce.
Student involvement in preparation is another great way for students to become more invested in the local food program. When we purchased a large quantity of locally grown black beans, which came to us dried in their pods, Marsh decided to involve the students instead of having one or two AVI worker shell the beans out of sight. There was a table in various locations in Peirce for about a month, with beans still in their pods, and containers into which to put the shelled beans. Students could help as little or as much as they wanted to, but the visibility gave them more direct investment in their food and a better idea of the mount of work that goes into preparing our local food.