When freshmen arrive at the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus this fall, they will find food raised on Wisconsin farms and organically grown food on the menu.
The university’s food service is adding four items to the dining center menu that come directly from Wisconsin farms. Students will enjoy tortilla chips made from organic blue corn grown in Janesville, apples grown in Richland Center, environmentally-friendly potatoes grown in the Central Sands region of the state, and hamburger from cows raised without synthetic hormones on Wisconsin pastures.
UW-Madison is one of several college and university food services around the country that are starting to include locally grown and organic food on their menus. Bates College in Maine, Yale University in Connecticut, and Northland College in Wisconsin are other schools that are doing the same thing. Even elementary schools are putting organic and locally grown foods into their cafeterias. In 1999, Berkeley California’s public schools began serving organic fruits and vegetables from local farms.
Bob Fessenden, who leads the residence halls dining service, says that student demand for organic food is growing. This reflects overall trends in the food industry, where the organic market is growing at a rate of 20% each year. An ABC News poll released in June found that 52% of Americans say that they are more likely to buy foods labeled as organically grown.
After successfully adding the apples and blue corn chips to the regular food service menu this spring, Fessenden decided to offer all four locally grown items this fall.
Fessenden says that changes in the student population at UW-Madison influence the demand for locally grown and organic food. “Many students are coming from families where they are used to eating organic food.” Fessenden also mentioned that he chooses organic food for his own family for reasons that include better taste.
Students ask for locally grown and organic food on the menu for economic and environmental reasons, as well as freshness and taste. Students who grew up on farms say that it makes sense for the university to use its buying power to support family farmers. Students concerned about the environment want to support farming practices that decrease nutrient and pesticide runoff and encourage healthy wildlife populations. They also prefer eating locally grown food because less gasoline is used in transport.
“In Wisconsin, we are very fortunate that some of our colleges and universities support local farms by serving their products in dormitories and conference centers,” said John Hendrickson of the UW-Madison Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems. The Center worked with Fessenden and the food service staff to connect them with farmers who could supply the new products. The USDA Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program provided support for this work with the residence halls dining service.
Chefs from local restaurants helped convince the UW-Madison food service staff to incorporate locally grown food into the menu. Chef Odessa Piper of L’Etoile restaurant, recipient of this year’s prestigious James Beard award, worked with Fessenden and other UW-Madison Housing Food Service staff to put together meals that featured organic food raised in the region.
During the 2000-2001 school year, students enjoyed three of these special meals. In October, the special organic and locally grown dinner was strictly vegetarian. A highlight on the menu was an Organic Baked Potato and Nacho Bar, with Wisconsin-grown potatoes, tortilla chips made from blue corn grown on a nearby farm, and a variety of cheeses and sour cream from dairies in the state; every item was organically grown. Other foods at the dinner included multi-colored fingerling potatoes, fresh pears, and apple pie from a nearby orchard kitchen.
Then in the spring came two organic meals for the meat-lovers on campus, the Meat and Potatoes Dinners. These meals featured organic beef tenderloin, free range natural hamburgers, organic redskin potatoes, and a variety of rich desserts made from organic Wisconsin dairy products and fruit: pumpkin pie, cream puffs, and blueberry cheesecake.
This fall, each of the four campus dining centers will go totally organic and locally grown for one evening. The dinners will happen in September and early October. Menus have been chosen from what local farmers can provide, with an emphasis on organic meats, dairy, and Wisconsin’s delicious late summer and fall produce like tomatoes, eggplant, and acorn squash.
The organic blue corn chips served in the dining centers come from Blue Farm, owned and managed by Randy and Judy Hughes. Although the farm has been in his family for five generations, the Hughes are the first to manage the land using organic farming practices.
The apples come from Sunset Orchard, located in southwestern Wisconsin. They are delivered to UW-Madison cored, sliced, and packed in individual serving bags with dips. Al Vignieri, who runs Sunset Orchard, processes apples from other farms in the region as well as from his own farm so that he can offer the sliced apples year-round.
Environmentally-friendly russet potatoes will be on the menu too. They come from a group of Wisconsin farmers who are working with the World Wildlife Fund to reduce their pesticide use. The farmers’ goals are to protect human health and wildlife habitat. Their potatoes are sold under the Protected Harvest eco-label which carries the World Wildlife Fund’s well-known panda logo.
Students will also enjoy natural Angus beef hamburgers from Wisconsin Pasturelands. Wisconsin Pasturelands is a group of farmers who raise their cattle on quality pasture without antibiotics, added hormones, animal by-products, or genetically modified feeds.
Hendrickson said that the decision to make these foods a permanent part of the residence halls menu is a victory for Wisconsin farmers, students, and the environment. “UW-Madison and the residence halls dining service staff should be applauded for their commitment to work with Wisconsin farmers. Students get fresh, delicious food, and the farmers gain new markets for their products. And, because this food is grown in environmentally friendly ways, our soil, water, and wildlife resources also benefit. In other words, everyone wins.”
Author: Janet Parker