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What's Trending: Farm to Table

By Selena Fragassi


The “local” movement just might be the food fight of this generation. Restaurants in every metro market have now made “farm-to-table,” “sustainable” and “locally-sourced” cuisine standard fare. Huge corporations like McDonald’s have felt the pressure to come clean about where their ingredients are sourced from (and have actually changed buying patterns to meet demand) and niche stores like Whole Foods have become the national conglomerate of the seasonal farmer’s market. In a world where GMOs and preservatives are taboo words, consumers more than ever are conscious of where their food is coming from—and colleges and universities are on the cusp of some pretty fresh ideas.

Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia was one of the first, launching a unique Farms & Fields project in 2009 to offer a campus dining venue that prepared dishes like paninis, pastas and salads solely with local, sustainable and organic ingredients from the Dining Services Farm at Kentland. The fields are on-site and run by a farm manager who is a joint hire of the university’s dining services and horticultural departments. When it started in 2009, the plot was a quarter acre and “it’s grown every year since,” says Rial Carver, sustainability coordinator for VA Tech’s dining services. Today the farm is up to 6 acres and, in 2014, it harvested 40,000 pounds of goods for the program.

“As the farm-to-table movement has grown, we have brought more in and spread out the offerings amongst all dining units,” says Carver. By 2010, Farms & Fields began to serve meats, including fresh hams, pork loins, beef rounds, ground beef and select cuts of lamb, from an on-site meat processing center managed by the school’s Animal Science department. By 2013, it started to acquire milk products from the Dairy Science department. “In the 2013-14 school year, 12.9% of our food and beverage budget went towards local food purchases,” notes Carver, “and we have a goal of 20% by 2020.”

Because VA Tech is a land grant university there are deep-rooted ties to the agricultural age, which helps further its local food mission, but it’s not just land grant campuses that are stepping up to the plate.

Loyola University Chicago Retreat and Ecology Campus in Woodstock, Illinois has also been on board with the sustainable movement since 2012 when previous Chef Scott Cummings kicked off the initiative by offering communal farm-to-table dinners open to the public at the 100-acre property that includes gardens, a greenhouse and room for 200 overnight guests year-round. Cummings left his position last year after winning a season of the reality cooking show, “Hell’s Kitchen,” but his replacement John Schnupp, director of food programs, has continued the idea and added more flourishes for visiting groups such as wine pairings and cooking classes in a demonstration kitchen that opened last spring.

“As people become more educated in the local food movement, programs like ours are becoming a hot ticket,” says Schnupp. It’s why Loyola includes an informational component with each farm-to-table dinner. The night includes presentations by Schnupp for each course (examples include rack of lamb with mustard shallot sauce and lime chicken, curried corn and roasted pepper tacos). It also begins with a tour of the grounds by Farm Manager Emily Zach who explains how produce like lettuce, tomatoes, potatoes, onions and basil are grown and where other items are sourced from, which Schnupp says is always within a 200-mile radius. “In the summer months, when the garden is in full bloom, 100% of the yield gets utilized for conference services and retreat groups, but in the winter we have to subsidize with area vendors though this year we are hoping we can produce more in our greenhouse, which is now operating all 12 months.”
The educational aspect is the key to the appeal of farm-to-table meals, says Alex White, chef manager of Benchmark Restaurant at Niagara College in Niagara On The Lake, Ontario. “There’s a nostalgia to food culture and learning why certain dishes were made because they were efficient or why we used to dry meats at a time when we didn’t have refrigeration is intriguing,” he says noting it goes back to when butcher shops were a standard for the freshest cuts. “This idea has been around for a long time, it just got away from people, but now with our informational age people are starting to ask questions again.”

White and his team play off the notion by boosting their farm-to-table program with a return to traditional ways of cooking. Though local sourcing has always been the idea behind the college’s dining services—they are in food and wine country after all, he says, “now we are focusing a lot more on whole animal purchasing.” Doing so is financially viable for the college and the farmer and makes the food tastier since his team has total control over how the meat is cut and served. It’s also more creative—with cow meat the team can make ground beef burgers and steaks and then braise other parts for meat pies and empanadas. They also do crown chicken using both breasts and assemble their own bacon, sausage and pork chops. While a lot of the produce comes from Niagara College’s on-site greenhouse, meats are supplied from farms a few hours away, which White admits can sometimes be challenging for large group needs. “Smaller farms can’t produce the volume for that, but that’s when we start using multiple sources. We are supporting the local economy even more that way,” he says.

For logistical reasons like these, Loyola has a “chef’s choice” menu for groups, though Schnupp does provide a catering guide if they want an upgrade or specific request.

VA Tech also does up-to-the-minute menus. “At Farms & Fields the menu changes every day,” says Carver. A blog posts current selections to keep clientele in the loop of selections like butternut squash lasagna that get constant comments and praise. “People wait on bated breath for when it’s in season in the fall,” she says. “It’s nice to know our guests can taste the difference of our fresh ingredients and actually prefer it.”

Get Connected

Loyola University Chicago Retreat & Ecology Campus
Woodstock, IL
(815) 338.1032

Niagara College–Niagara On The Lake
Niagara On The Lake, Ontario
(905) 641.4435

Virginia Tech
Blackburg, VA
(540) 231.8058