Small family farms provide fresh produce for college dining facilities

ST. LOUIS – Universities and colleges crave a steady diet of meat, vegetables, fruit and other food for hungry students.

Take the University of Missouri at Columbia, where students consumed nearly 2 million meals in residence dining halls last year, according to a story in Mizzou, the alumni magazine. That daunting statistic includes 51,500 pounds of fresh tomatoes, 9 tons of cheddar cheese and 160 tons of french fries.

Likewise, local farmers need strong markets year round for their meat, produce, milk and eggs. But small local farms cannot totally fill the orders needed to satisfy a campus of hungry students, day after day, through all the seasons.

That fact hasn’t deterred proponents who believe in providing students with fresher, more nutritious food, and small farmers a decent living.

Mary Hendrickson, a rural sociologist with University of Missouri Extension, ticks off the benefits:

Locally grown food is fresher and doesn’t have to travel far, which means a longer cooler or shelf life while cutting down on fuel consumption and harmful engine emissions.

The universities have first-hand knowledge of the farmers who grow the food.

The students have healthier food that isn’t treated with chemicals or additives.

Valuable relationships are formed between local consumers and farmers that can rebuild a food-supply infrastructure.

Hendrickson always is searching for ways to strengthen small family farms in the face of large-scale, industrial agriculture that turns out meat, vegetables and other produce on a mass scale.

Her latest effort is coaxing food service managers and supply companies, such as U.S. Food Service of Columbia, Md., which supplies Mizzou and Washington University, to search for and buy from local farmers.

Hendrickson persuaded the food service at Mizzou to feature Missouri apples – Jonathan and red and golden Delicious – in one dining hall in the fall of 2005.

Campus dining halls highlighted Missouri apples again this fall. And on March 9, campus dining facilities served more than 3,000 meals featuring all Missouri products except


Those included pork loin, goat cheese, grape juice and pecan pies. The university’s agriculture experiment stations also have come through with tomatoes, pumpkins and decorative gourds, Hendrickson said.

U.S. Food Service has been providing Mizzou’s dining facilities with watermelons grown in St. Louis County by Thies Farm and Greenhouses Inc., said Dave Thies, whose family-owned commercial farm is a fifth-generation operation.

Thies said the biggest obstacle for colleges and universities wanting to buy locally is the short growing season, which means fresh vegetables may be hard to find during the normal September-through-May school year.

Hendrickson readily admits that many producers may not be ready for prime time.

“It’s not easy. I won’t lie to you,” she told about 30 interested farmers at the Small Farm Show in Columbia in early November. “Farmers don’t return phone calls quickly. Many don’t have answering machines. They’re not set up to take credit cards.

“You have to know how to produce, and you have to know how to market,” she added.

Or, as Marc Foley, executive chef for Bon Appetit Management Co.’s operations at Washington University, put it: “It’s a learning curve on both sides.”