Every week about 700 pounds of Minnesota's finest beef is delivered to the cafeteria at St. Olaf College in Northfield. This local meat is 100 percent grass-fed, sustainably produced and nutrient-rich. Likewise, high-quality local pork, dairy products and produce are delivered.
Many of the same ingredients will be delivered down the road at Carleton College, which just started using the same food service provider that St. Olaf has used for years, Bon Appétit Management Co. The reason for change at Carleton? The company's holistic approach to sustainability most closely matched the values at Carleton, said senior Vera Chang, one of the students on the selection committee.
The college cafeteria is no longer a repository for vats of mystery food. Indeed, the greatest interest in healthful, sustainable, local food is found in higher education, said Bob Olson, interim director of Food Alliance Midwest. Food Alliance certifies growers and producers based on standards of sustainability, meaning the way the production affects animals, the environment, workers and consumers.
"We've seen a tremendous increase and a tremendous interest [in higher education]," Olson said.
At the University of Minnesota, Morris, for example, spending on sustainably produced food went from zero in 2000 to $20,000 in 2006. In just the first five months of the 2007-2008 school year, spending was up to $48,000, said Donna Bauck, general manager for food service company Sodexo.
Because information and awareness are what make consumers change their habits, it makes sense that colleges would be ahead of the curve, said Todd Lein, sales and marketing director for Thousand Hills Cattle Co., which produces the grass-fed beef served at St. Olaf, Carleton and Macalester in St. Paul.
"It's such a contradiction to spend your time in classes talking about economics, sustainability, environmental awareness, health consciousness and knowing where the food you eat comes from and then go to your lunchroom and eat something from halfway across the planet," Lein said.
St. Olaf junior Kristin Johnson agrees. She has an environmental studies concentration and is co-leader of a campus organic farm where students grow produce such as peppers, summer squash, eggplant and basil. That food is sold to Bon Appétit and served in cafeteria meals.
"There's such a disconnect between where our food comes from, and I feel there's even less information about meat and how it's raised and its contents," Johnson said. "To have an option that's more reliable and where I know I'm consuming something that was produced in a responsible way is really helpful to me as a student."
Support from students -- and administrators -- is important, said Peter Abrahamson, general manager for Bon Appétit and former executive chef at St. Olaf.
"The students here are great; they're pretty green, and sustainability is pretty pronounced here with the windmills and composting," he said. Buying products such as growth-hormone-free milk and antibiotic-free chicken is much easier with student support, he said. "The more you do, the more the students want you to push the envelope."
High-quality fresh food can be more expensive. For example, beef from Thousand Hills costs more than conventional beef, so when Abrahamson started incorporating it into the menu, he got creative in other areas to avoid busting the budget. Instead of serving 4-ounce chicken breasts on the salad bar, there are now 3-ounce breasts, saving $38,000 a year. And instead of using half-gallon milk jugs at the coffee shop, they switched to full gallon jugs, an annual savings of $2,000.
When the committee at Carleton was deciding which food service provider to choose, all the options were within 1 percent of each other in overall cost, said Dan Bergeson, director of auxiliary services at Carleton. So healthier, fresher options don't have to be cost-prohibitive, Bergeson said, because companies that use more processed food and national distributors have added costs such as transportation.
Students appreciate the health benefits of food such as 100 percent grass-fed beef and value knowing where their food comes from, said Macalester junior Hannah Rivenburgh.
"A lot of students at Macalester are involved in that work themselves -- environmental sustainability, social justice and all the other issues that tie into this, so they appreciate what their school is doing," she said. "They'll put signs out that say, 'The radishes today are from Farmer John out in Anoka County' and things like that. It's cool to actually make the connection."
Sarah Moran is a Minneapolis-based health writer.