Lexington, Virginia • January 18, 2010
When students at Washington and Lee University eat at the on-campus dining facility, the Marketplace, they are benefitting not only themselves — the food is both delicious and nutritious — but also local food vendors, the local economy and the environment.
In 2009, the percentage of local food used by W&L's dining facilities increased to an estimated 32 percent, up from 25 percent the previous year and 8.5 percent in 2007-2008. While W&L has been actively pursuing its own local food program, the University has also assisted other colleges, schools and hospitals with the notion.
Christopher Carpenter, special projects coordinator for W&L Dining Services, finds and works with the local vendors. "I call him my forager," said W&L chef Geraldine McCutcheon. "He finds farmers, visits them and makes sure their farming practices are good. It's a fun program, and it keeps growing as we look for new farmers."
This year, according to Carpenter, W&L has added milk from Homestead Dairy, outside Roanoke, and increased the amount of local chicken, pork and beef it offers. "I think we will continue to increase each year, and one of the reasons we can do this is a program we started called cost-transfer economics," Carpenter said.
For example, chicken bought through more traditional means costs $1.10 per pound, while local chicken costs $2.49 per pound. On the other hand, apples from Washington State cost $44 per case, but Virginia apples cost just $17 per case. Carpenter takes the savings from one vendor and applies them to another, more expensive vendor.
"I think it's been a very successful program and makes the county's food system stronger," he said, adding that every dollar spent locally yields $1.80 in economic benefit to the area. The area he purchases within is generally the Shenandoah Valley.
It's not only the economic benefits that are important. Purchasing locally also enhances the bond between W&L and the community. For instance, W&L Dining Services employees visited Orchardside Berry Farm in nearby Raphine, Va., in August to pick blackberries for freezing. "One of the things I love," said McCutcheon, "is when the farmers deliver their own product and I can talk with them. They know the people who work here because they are neighbors in the community, and that's really exciting. This program is one of the reasons I came to W&L a year ago."
Carpenter pointed out another benefit: he obtains food that is free of hormones and antibiotics. It is also fresher, tastier and more nutritious, partly because it hasn't traveled a great distance. "The chicken tastes better. It's the same with the potatoes. Last year when we ran out of local potatoes, everyone noticed the difference. And the students often comment on the richness of the local milk," he said.
And fewer miles mean a smaller carbon footprint. Carpenter likes to crunch the numbers to track how many miles W&L saves by purchasing local food. For example, when W&L bought apples from Washington State they traveled 3,562 miles to Lexington. Now, the apples from Nelson County travel only 68 miles.
Honey from the Whistle Creek Apiary saves 2,534 miles, chicken from Stuart's Draft saves 697 miles, pork from Baker's Farm saves 919 miles, and flour from Wades Mill travels 1,353 fewer miles than when purchased from North Dakota.
W&L used to purchase beef from Argentina but now uses beef from Buffalo Creek Farm in Lexington, owned by Charlie Potter. "Buying Charlie's beef in some volume helped him to expand, and it contributed to the re-opening of Donald's meat processing plant in Lexington that was last open in 1988," said Carpenter. "At that time it was a private facility, but now it's USDA-approved and right here in town." Potter found that the new facility also gives local people the opportunity to purchase meat directly from him. "People want to know where their meat comes from," he said.
Christi Huger from Mountain View Farm, in Fairfield, sells cheese, yogurt and butter to W&L. "It's not a huge amount," she said, "but we usually sell them two or three wheels of cheese a week and several gallons of yogurt, depending on the menus they are offering. It's been good for us economically, and W&L has been very easy to deal with."
Huger is surprised by how receptive W&L has been to new products. "We had a new yogurt-like product we call Moogurt, and W&L has started using it in recipes," she said.
McCutcheon likes to work new products into the program. "Sometimes the challenge is that it's a neat product, but what can I do with it? Some of our students have really broad culinary horizons and some less so," she said.
McCutcheon uses new foods in creative ways so that students make good food choices, beyond burgers and fries. "They think it's delicious once they get started," she said, "so we try to make it more interesting, such as doing greens Brazilian-style."
But if the students do want more traditional comfort foods, they can always make their own local peanut butter. The Marketplace offers a machine with peanuts from Southside Virginia. "The nuts are in the machine," explained Carpenter proudly. "You press the button and it grinds up the amount you want. There's nothing better."