Dinner at the Farm House is all about the food. How it’s prepared and presented, sure. But also how far it has traveled.
For the dozen students who live and often eat together in this Carleton College student-interest house (that interest being sustainability), the same questions are often posed: Are these products from local farmers? Could we grow them ourselves?
The residents run a small organic garden, buy from and contribute to a nearby co-op and, above all else, want fellow students to understand the ramifications of their purchasing decisions. They are part of a growing "buy local" movement that is changing the way some colleges look at food options.
It wasn't long ago that, to students, the phrase "local food" meant eating at the dorm cafeteria rather than at the restaurant across campus. Many now see their role as consumers through a different lens. Part of the ever-growing sustainability movement  is the doctrine that buying products from regional businesses and farms is more desirable than getting them from distributors that ship products across the country. The argument: Food less traveled is fresher and tastier, and going local reduces fossil fuel consumption that contributes to global warming.
"With this sensitivity to the many ways in which our food reflects our values and advances our goals as responsible citizens, eating local has become a guiding principle in our food habits," said Mikaela Hagen, a Carleton senior who manages the Farm House, in an online entry about local buying.
According to the College Sustainability Report Card , a survey of campuses' environmental practices, more than two thirds of colleges devote at least a portion of their food budgets to buying from local farms or producers, and more than one third buy from a local dairy. The report issued an overall "A" grade for college food and recycling programs.
Student groups are forming around "eat local" campaigns, and local purchasing initiatives are now commonplace on campuses, said Jodi Smith, a spokesman at the National Association of College and University Food Services.
Yale University is hosting a summit  this weekend in which student groups from across the country are talking about issues such as running college farms and safeguarding farm workers' rights.
Last month, dozens of campuses served by Bon Appétit Management Company took part in a program that featured a meal made entirely of ingredients from within 150 miles of the kitchen where they are served. "The Eat Local Challenge" is the company's effort to encourage colleges to use distributors that purchase from local vendors.
A Changing Menu
Many colleges that are taking part in local buying are the ones you might expect -- rural (or at least non-urban institutions) that have access to nearby farmland and gardens. Kenyon College, which has bought local foods as part of its campus dining service since 2004, says it purchases at least 30 percent of its goods from regional vendors.
A Kenyon initiative called Food for Thought aims to build a sustainable local market for foods produced in Knox Country, Ohio, where the college is located. Beyond purchasing products from farmers, the college gives students academic credit for working in the fields, studying about how sprawl has limited farmland and coming up with ways that farmers can expand their local business. Two years ago, Kenyon hosted a national conference  that touched on many of those topics.
Howard Sacks, director of the Rural Life Center  at Kenyon, which organizes much of the programming, said the local food initiatives have helped strengthen the town-gown relations.
"We live in a rural community to which we didn't engage for years," he said. "This has broken down the barrier significantly. Getting students and faculty into the community is a valuable pedagogical approach."
Patrick Raynard, director of dining services at Hamilton College and general manager of Bon Appétit, the college's food service provider, said he's hearing more students ask questions about where the food is from and how they can help local growers.
“Students want to be part of the community they’re in," Raynard said. "The ones we talk to feel good about eating an apple that might have been picked that morning down the road."
At Carleton, students involved in the group Food Truth want to make sure students are aware of the benefits of eating locally. Carleton buys from 15 to 20 local farmers and producers and its dining service buys grass-fed meat, according to information in the sustainability report card.
"We're still convinced that there's room to improve on that," said Vera Chang, a Carleton junior who founded Food Truth.
The group is also looking beyond the campus, making policy recommendations on a farm bill being kicked around Congress, among other national policy issues. Residents of the Farm House held a festival that teaches students about local food production. The aim is to get people outside of the usual environmental crowd interested in food issues.
Several students interviewed said they thought more and more of their peers are taking an interest in where their food comes from, but Hagen, the Farm House manager, said there remains a perception on her campus -- and likely many others -- that those interested in local food issues are the "earthy" types. "Dirty hippies" is the reputation of the house's residents, she jokes.
At the house, conversations over dinner often go beyond local buying. "We're always interested in scrutinizing each others' purchases and talking about investment ethics."
The Bottom Line
Colleges, of course, also scrutinize their purchases, which is likely why some have shied away from buying organic or in small quantities from local businesses. Smith, the association of college food services spokeswoman, said buying locally can make financial sense for rural institutions but is more difficult for some urban colleges that have farther to go to reach open fields. Likewise, some items that aren't native to a region simply can't be grown or bought locally.
Sacks, the Kenyon director, says the cost of buying locally vs. nationally can depend on the product. At Kenyon, meat that is bought locally is more expensive (and higher quality, he says). But he's never found a decent tomato outside Knox County that costs less than what he can buy locally.
Raynard, the Hamilton dining services director, said that as the college begins to buy in bulk from local producers, the cost goes down. It's only expensive when colleges buy from local vendors only a few items, he said, because the vendors have to account for the rest of their inventory.
And then there's the question of mission: Is it a college's responsibility to follow its social conscience, or to simply provide students with the most affordable options?
Larry D. Shinn, president of Berea College, said the answer is both. His college purchases beef raised by local farmers, in part because it feels a duty help local business. It's not exactly charity, Shinn explains. Buying locally is sound fiscal policy in the long run.
"It costs more for now, but it won't cost more forever," he said. "Look at the rising cost of fuel. Do you pay a little more [for food] now or wait until transportation costs get worse?"
There can be other hardships in switching to local foods. Culinary staffs have to be retrained to deal with new foods that might come in different quantities and involve different preparation methods. Smith said some colleges have to rethink insurance plans, as many local farmers might not have the same guarantees as national producers.
Shinn said some of the main food service providers for higher education have been slow to move.
"A company like Sodexho has been behind the curve on local foods," he said. "People on the ground are saying it's the wave of the future," but it has taken awhile for that message to stick.
Berea employs a Sodexho manager, Cait McClanahan, who is charge of the college's sustainability efforts. McClanahan, who came from a nonprofit that helps farmers do business, now serves as a liaison between Berea's campus-run farm and its food services department.
She agrees that the large food service companies have been slow to act but are open to working with colleges that make local buying a priority. Sodexho is beginning to ask distributors to note whenever a local product is purchased.
She said one issue is finding enough colleges in a region to make it economically viable to buy in bulk from local farmers. In that regard, she disagrees with the assessment that rural colleges are at an advantage in ordering from regional food vendors. Urban institutions can more easily form a consortium that goes through a single distributor, she said.
McClanahan has found that in some cases, the food service companies haven't acted because colleges haven't made requests because students haven't demanded anything different.
"If [colleges and companies] don't hear anything from students," said Chang, the Carleton student, "they assume everything is going fine. Colleges are still surprised to hear that students are engaged."