Homegrown in Rutland
By Gordon Dritschilo
Herald Staff | September 21,2006
POULTNEY - It looked like green peppers stuffed with sausage.
Physically speaking, the entrée in the corner of the Green Mountain College dining hall was green peppers stuffed with sausage. Metaphorically speaking, the humble meat-and-veggie combo was both an experiment and a political banner.
Unlike the pizzas under a hot light behind them, the cold cuts in the nearby sandwich bar or the Asian noodles in a steam tray in the next room, the sausage-stuffed peppers were assembled almost entirely from ingredients grown and raised locally, at the Boardman Hill Farm in West Rutland.
"Buy local" has become a battle cry for foodies, farmers and environmentalists in recent years. In a student-planned experiment, the dining hall at Green Mountain is offering a lunchtime entrée made almost entirely out of local ingredients each day this week.
A class at the school then will look at how feasible it would be to make the program permanent. Those involved said that while there are plenty of pitfalls to trying to regularly feed large numbers of people from food raised solely in and around Rutland County, it doesn't look impossible.
The rewards could be big.
"Buy local" advocates tout benefits to the local economy from money being kept in the community, social benefits from consumers having a "relationship" with their food and environmental benefits from reducing the energy cost of food distribution.
The stuffed peppers Tuesday were joined by locally grown salad greens served with a locally made ginger-shitake salad dressing, locally baked bread (made with locally grown ingredients) and flavorful locally made preserves.
Monday, it had been organic beans, yogurt and cornmeal from Weston. Wednesday it was pork from Greenwich, N.Y. Today was scheduled for mixed vegetables from Poultney, and Friday for free range turkey from Orwell.
Companies in Benson, Manchester, Middletown Springs and Rutland also contributed.
Corinna Lowe, a senior from Mountain View, Wyo., majoring in environmental studies with a concentration in sustainable agriculture, said the idea came to her while traveling to a Northeast Organic Farmers Association conference.
"I was trying to think of ways the campus could be more environmentally friendly, and I thought 'local food,'" she said. "The college was already doing some of that with the college farm."
College chef David Ondria said the dining hall offers eggs from on-campus chickens each morning, and has larger selections from the college farm on special occasions.
"Sometimes we have duck eggs," he said. "Two years ago, for Easter, we had lambs raised on the farm for Easter dinner. Last year, we had lamb and mutton we served as sausage for the Welsh dinner."
Lowe received a $3,000 grant from the college, which was matched by the company that runs the dining hall. She worked out a menu with Ondria and set out to find farms to buy from. She said she visited a number of farm stands during her previous studies and had help from both NOFA's directory and the Vermont Fresh Network.
"The part that was difficult for me was numbers, figuring out how many people were going to eat the entrée and translating that into how many tomatoes we needed," she said.
Ondria said they planned on about 400 entrees each day and expected a trend of more people gravitating toward the local food as the week continued.
The first difficulty was making sure they could get what they needed locally. Lowe said she learned that supply often does not react to demand in a timely fashion.
"A supplier runs out or sells out, or there's a blight, or anything damages the crop, you directly feel that pressure from the supplier," she said.
Another issue is cost.
While many point to similar efforts at Yale University as proof that what Green Mountain is contemplating can be done, Ondria said the Yale program was heavily subsidized.
College spokesman Stephen Diehl said the college will have to weight the programs profitability - or lack thereof - against other factors.
Going all-local could also require a major change in industry practices.
Ondria said the trend in the college dining business has been toward offering more and more variety. He said there generally is a significant number of students overly loyal to a certain food, and that the local market might not be able to produce enough chicken nuggets and French fries to meet the demand.
Ondria said he was not sure the trend is positive, and others agree.
Philip Ackerman-Leist, a professor of environmental studies and director of the college's farm and food project, said a dining hall that tries to be a jack of all trades winds up a master of none.
"What we need to be thinking very seriously about is whether we're willing to trade the number of entrees for taste, quality and nutrition," he said. "If we continue to offer six or seven, if you try to please everyone with everything they could possibly want, there's a tradeoff in quality."
Ackerman-Leist said that while he did not think it was right or practical to try to force students to eat a particular way, there are ways they can be won over.
"It's all about taste," he said. "If you don't razzle-dazzle them with taste, you're not going to get anywhere."
Another unanswered question, according to Ackerman-Leist, is one of what "local" means, and whether one really wants to think locally or regionally.
"The state has been defining local in their 'Buy Local' campaign as 'in Vermont,'" he said. "Other places are using different radiuses - 50 miles, 100 miles. Us being on the border, it doesn't make sense to just think about Vermont because we have phenomenal growers nearby in Washington County, New York."
Ackerman-Leist said a key principle is to not pin yourself to a radius.
Then there are the impracticalities of completely excluding ingredients that don't fit any reasonable definition of local or regional. Ackerman-Leist said the dining hall was unlikely to ban chocolate or coffee. Nor was it likely to do without salt.
"If you're a purist in an institutional setting, you're doomed to failure," he said. "You can figure out the integrity of a person by their compromises."
On the plus side, Ackerman-Leist said the college has an advantage other organizations trying to promote local foods don't.
"We have a captive audience here," he said. "Students have thought about food - that's not to say they've understood it, necessarily - but they're coming in with an openness, a curiosity. The education shouldn't stop in a classroom. It should filter into the dining hall, the residence hall, everywhere else."
Contact Gordon Dritschilo at email@example.com.