Local Food Becomes the New Normal on New York Campuses

Christina Grace

Kale salad with cherries and sunflower seeds. Braised pork chop with red cabbage and apples. Butternut squash with baby spinach. Ida red apple crisp.

It reads like a menu from a Michelin-starred restaurant, but these are actually lunch offerings for college students at four State University of New York (SUNY) campuses. Locally sourced lunch offerings.

But how? Aren't colleges too big to buy local? And isn't it too expensive?

These are the common perceptions in the farm to institution world, and the challenges that American Farmland Trust (AFT) set out to overcome with the Farm to SUNY pilot project. With funding from a USDA Specialty Crop Block Grant administered by the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets, AFT's Farm to Institution New York State (FINYS) team launched Farm to SUNY in 2013 at State University of New York campuses in Albany, New Paltz, Oneonta and Oswego.

Over $150 million is spent annually feeding over 550,000 students and faculty members. Yet many public university students have not had the opportunity to enjoy farm-fresh and delicious fruits and vegetables.

Our team came together to help farmers capture more of SUNY's tremendous buying power and to improve students' access to high quality local produce, with help from experts at Cornell Cooperative Extension and the Hudson Valley Agribusiness Development Corporation.

Our goal was for each campus to increase its purchases of select New York-grown vegetable and fruit items by 25 percent during the 2014-15 academic year.

Along with distributors, farmers, food service directors and chefs we rolled up our sleeves to move product. We conducted supply and demand research and analyses. Working with students, we measured awareness of, and interest in, local food initiatives. And we collaborated with campus sustainability leaders on education and outreach activities.

The project team was able to verify over $275,000 in purchases of New York fresh cut and frozen produce across the four campuses. Farm to SUNY drove over $102,000 in new purchases, or 37 percent of the total New York purchases.

While over 20 farmers sold produce into these campuses, there were some standout beneficiaries. University at Albany purchased more than 21,000 pounds of tomatoes from Blackhorse Farms in Athens, New York. Bulich Mushrooms supplied nearly $8,000-worth of mushrooms to Albany and New Paltz. And Oswego is now serving Hidden Hollow Farm's New York maple syrup year-round (instead of more affordable national brands of commercial blended syrup). The most successful local products brought to campuses were tomatoes, apples, watermelon, mushrooms, onions, potatoes and peppers.

The Farm to SUNY team is happy to have these dollars and cents victories to point to, but as we reflect on project success, the numbers do not get top billing. The real win was when Farm to SUNY stopped looking like a pilot and started looking like the new normal.

A few highlights of what's happened since the pilot project ended:

  • We coordinated the second annual New York Campus Crunch this fall and had participation from 21 colleges and universities in New York. Over 6,100 students and faculty bit into a New York apple in support of our local farmers.
  • Last September, Al Lansing, owner of Lansing Farm in Colonie, New York, harvested watermelon that was planted specifically for and delivered to the University at Albany. Oswego also purchased 1,472 pounds of watermelon this year from Deconnick Farm, after 2014's failed attempts to procure New York watermelon.
  • Our food service director partners at all four campuses had been certain kale would be a bust. Students disagreed, and they are now regularly putting kale dishes on the menu.
  • And this quote from one of our student partners:

"I love the work that I'm doing with Farm to SUNY program and AFT, and I'm learning so much about a part of sustainability that I didn't know much about before this position. My passion for environmental sustainability is deepening as a result of learning more about local food, and I'm so grateful for it because it has served to strengthen my conviction to spend my life making the world a greener place.

Jacqueline Phaneuf, Farm to SUNY Intern at SUNY Oswego

The pilot project is over but the work continues. Last month we met with dining professionals representing many of the 29 SUNY campuses with student meal programs. There is great work happening all over SUNY. There are also common challenges.

Many of the dining directors we spoke to grapple with the complexities of tracking purchases back to the farm. They lack the marketing information they need to put a farmer face and name to the foods they serve.

In 2016, farm source traceability will have our attention as we collaborate with SUNY and other FINYS partners to grow farm-to-college in New York and popularize nutritious, locally sourced food whether we're in a five star restaurant or a campus dining hall.

Read more about this project in the Scaling Up: Farm to SUNY report and be sure to visit the Farm to Institution New York State Website at www.finys.org.