The University of New Mexico is getting fresh with local farmers—in the kitchen, that is.
University food service staff has wised up to student and faculty demand for fresh, local and organic food on campus. In two separate surveys issued by the university, students voiced their desire for more fresh vegetables and healthier meals. Many students felt their options for healthy food on campus were limited. By the looks of the blazing neon signs in the student union cafeteria, the only appealing vegetables—short of a steamed, from-frozen medley—were served as pizza toppings or squished between greasy hamburger buns.
UNM food service director Carol Scott has partnered with La Montañita Co-op to liven up stale cafeteria offerings. Following in the footsteps of Brown University and UC Berkeley—both forerunners in serving farm-fresh produce—UNM has begun to feature fresh, local food on campus.
“I like organic food,” says freshman Alex Kouri. “Fresh ingredients are a nice alternative. I’m glad the university is going with local growers.”
As students stand in line for lunch, they see a small poster of the featured New Mexico farmer and the crop that’s being served. Currently, all of the featured local produce, from peaches, to squash, to green chile, is grown in New Mexico. Much of it is pesticide-free; some is organic.
Serving certified organic food, says Scott, is a goal the university is working toward. The process for obtaining certified organic foods and, moreover, for becoming a certified provider of organic fare, can be complex. The success of the food service project will be a factor in whether the dining facilities will eventually offer a broader selection of organic produce. For now, UNM is focusing solely on serving students produce that's grown in New Mexico.
“We get what we can from local growers,” explains Scott. Sometimes that means buying seasonal crops in bulk and saving a few bushels for later. Late last summer, the university bought a long-term supply of both green chile and peaches and chose to freeze the unused remainder of fresh crops for use throughout the year. Spicy-hot breakfast burritos and peach pie are popular among students regardless of the season, Scott says.
Big businesses and corporations require tall orders and can’t rely on a single farmer for an adequate supply of fresh food.
Thus far, Scott has seen to it that meal plan prices remain palatable, too. High-quality produce is notorious for its high cost in contrast to conventionally grown crops. Students, however, are infamously broke. They're concerned about paying more for meals in the cafeteria. “Cost is an issue,” says freshman Jenna Eichwald, who adds she’d be more likely to buy the less expensive product, even if it wasn’t local or organic. But Scott says buying from local farmers hasn’t stretched UNM's food budget. “So far, it hasn’t been more expensive,” she says. Scott is hopeful that she can keep costs down while improving the overall quality of the produce.
Michelle Franklin, distribution center manager for La Montañita Co-op, has been working closely with UNM to provide farm-fresh foods for university diners. The Co-op acts as a conduit between the various growers throughout the state and university food services, which plates thousands of meals a day. “The partnership is part of the Food-Shed initiative,” explains Franklin. The Food-Shed project is an effort by the Co-op, the state’s farmers and sustainability advocates to warehouse locally grown crops and distribute them to large organizations like UNM. Such big businesses and corporations require tall orders and can’t rely on a single farmer for an adequate supply of fresh food.
“Food-Shed is still in its infancy,” says Franklin. “It’s been around for just about a year. Our intention is to look at ways that we can really affect the local production community.” Bruce Milne, director of sustainability studies at UNM, has helped to spearhead the project. In collaboration with a sustainability committee composed of students and fellow faculty, Milne rallied for sustainable, local food on campus.
In an effort to be more “green,” the food services department also recycles all of its cardboard materials and cooking grease and holds occasional growers' markets on campus.
Students, it seems, are pleased with the progress toward fresher, sustainably grown food. “We like local food better,” says freshman Desiree Castell. “There’s a better variety and healthier options.”
If the students’ appetites keep up, UNM plans to put more local produce on the table.