Jane Simonson, of Cincinnati, selects her lunch at Kenyon College from the salad bar, of which some items have been procured from area farms. / Dave Polcyn/News Journal
GAMBIER — Most college campuses are known for dining options that fall far short of “home cooking, just like mom makes it.”
But for many students at Kenyon College, the dining hall is shopping at the same supermarket as mom: local farms.
Close to 40 percent of total food purchases for the Kenyon cafeteria are from local producers, according to John Marsh, AVI’s sustainability director.
“This matters to them (the students),” Marsh said. “They can tell what’s local and what’s not.”
Chad Wilkoff, a sous chef for the college, said the fresh produce has made all the difference in the way the kitchen prepares meals.
“We have more flexibility in what we’re able to make,” Wilkoff said. “We’re always changing our vegetable of the day.”
“The quality doesn’t get any better than this. We’re the real deal,” Wilkoff said.
Kenyon has been sourcing part of their meat, dairy and vegetable demand from central Ohio growers for seven years through its local food program with AVI.
Friday, the college opened its kitchen to several growers from the area for an Institutional Sourcing of Local Food Tour. Attendees toured the kitchen, ate fresh produce in the cafeteria and heard from Marsh how the partnership works.
“(This partnership) is good for people working on a relatively large scale or just getting started,” Marsh said. “We’re willing to help local growers get started.”
The college is always looking for new growers and produce items, Marsh told the crowd.
The majority of red meats are bought locally, as is a variety of vegetables, apples, butter, honey and some dairy products.
“Just about everything on the salad bar is locally grown,” Marsh said. “Including the yogurt, eggs, black beans and shredded cheeses.”
Most lettuce and spinach is sourced elsewhere, though, Marsh said, because local farmers are not able to produce enough to meet needs.
The cafeteria goes through 144 pints of cherry tomatoes in one day, Marsh said. The cafeteria serves about 1,500 people daily.
Last year, Kenyon students ate 22,000 pounds of potatoes, 20,000 pounds of apples, 6,000 pounds of onions, 4,000 pounds of broccoli, 4,000 pints of cherry tomatoes, 5,000 pounds of slicing tomatoes, 29,000 pounds of beef and 10,000 pounds of pork from local growers, according to Marsh’s records.
“Labor is the biggest problem,” Marsh said. “We can’t find enough local growers to provide what we need. It’s hard to entice people to grow something specifically for you.”
That’s why Marsh says building a relationship with local farmers is the most important part of his job.
“If you make a deal with a local farmer, you have to honor it,” Marsh said. “This is somebody’s livelihood.”
“I know I better take care of my grower because if I don’t, I won’t have any,” Marsh said.
Creekside Produce farmer Jonathon Byler is one of the many local farmers supplying the college with tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, broccoli, cabbage, green beans, summer squash, cherry tomatoes, winter squash and beets.
Byler said his partnership with AVI has “been a big help to income. About 50 percent (of our produce) goes to retail and the other 50 percent goes to AVI.”
The company funded construction of two greenhouses on Byler’s property so he could continue growing for the college all year.
AVI picks up fresh produce from the farm four days a week, Byler said.
The success stories from area farmers had California residents Dan McLeod and Caitilin Bergman “encouraged” that farming can be a business. The couple is looking to move back to McLeod’s hometown of Mount Vernon within the next year to buy some land and start a farm.
“We want to make the transition over to farming education,” McLeod said. “We hope to make the facility a demonstration site and a site to produce a sustainable product.”
“Kenyon should be a model for other schools,” McLeod said.
Helen Sites, of Delaware County, said she just bought a 28-acre farm last year in Coshocton County. She attended the meeting to find an outlet to sell her crops.
“Last year I grew a lot of kale, but there was no market for it,” Sites said. “Most of it ended up going to chicken feed, so I’m looking for an outlet for whatever.”
Marsh said he is “most desperate” to find five items locally; basil, oats, lettuce, chicken meat and early potatoes that can be picked by the start of school in August.
As for winter crops, Marsh said, the need is “wide open.”