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Monday, Mar 4, 2024

Sustainability Spotlight: Local purchasing in Middlebury dining halls

Whether a student is an Atwater devotee, a Ross regular or a huge Proc fan, chances are they have enjoyed some delicious ice cream, apples or eggs in the dining halls recently. From Cabot Creamery cheese to Vermont Coffee Company coffee beans, the dining halls at Middlebury are stocked with more local food than many students may realize.

Research on sustainability concludes that purchasing food locally is one of the best ways to reduce its associated carbon footprint. Shorter travel times mean decreased CO2 emissions from transporting food and less plastic packaging. Local food is almost always fresher and buying local produce, which puts money back into the local economy and encourages sustainable farming practices, according to the North Carolina State University Cooperative Extension.

Middlebury Dining’s motto is, “If we can get it locally, we will,” according to Dan Detora, executive director of Food Service Operations. Detora explained that Middlebury put $1.4 million into the local agricultural economy last year through its food purchases for the dining halls. 

The college is one of the largest agricultural purchasers in the state, so where the approximately $5 million in Middlebury’s annual budget for food is spent makes a big difference to Vermonters, Detora said. Middlebury Dining is 32% locally sourced, as students consume Vermont dairy, maple syrup, eggs, meat and produce every day, according to the dining services webpage

The history of local food in Middlebury’s dining halls began in 2002, when two students dreamed up the idea of an organic farm on campus, later to become The Knoll. Their goal was to provide a supply of local food for the dining halls, according to Sophia Calvi ’03.5, director of programs, sustainability and environmental affairs at the Franklin Environmental Center. 

When Calvi joined The Knoll in 2012 as the Food and Garden Educator, Middlebury began working with the Addison County Relocalization Network, commonly known as ACORN, to source local food, and implemented the Real Food Challenge for several years. The college succeeded in achieving the challenge’s goal of having 30% of food purchased locally by 2020, Detora said, and they are now ready to take on more sustainability efforts.

The college has established strong connections with local farms, some of which have been supplying food to Middlebury since they opened. 

“I think we just have such great relationships with our local vendors that we could call on them in the case of an emergency,” Detora said. 

In addition to selling their products to the dining halls, local farms occasionally participate in events on campus and host tours for students.One such business was Cornwall, Vt.-based Sunrise Orchards which held apple tastings and cider pressing on campus during Homecoming Weekend in mid-October. 

Middlebury’s main vendors come to campus five days a week to make deliveries, as well as some Saturdays. The proximity of many of the farms from which the college sources are so close to campus results in the college receiving food that is optimally fresh and often lasts longer before spoiling, according to Detora. Middlebury often buys end-of-season surpluses that farmers wouldn’t be able to sell otherwise, and large industrial freezers in the Freeman International Center allow Dining Services to purchase and preserve more food in bulk. 

Beyond purchasing local food, the dining halls work toward sustainability in other sectors, such as composting and food waste reduction, according to the Dining Services website. 

During the Covid-19 pandemic, the college was forced to weigh sustainability against safety, primarily in switching to single-use food containers, and reduced sorting of compost and recycling due to safety concerns. While the dining halls have since returned to the reusable to-go container system that was in place before the pandemic, food waste is still a prevalent issue on campus. 

In the past, students have taken up creative initiatives to raise awareness around food waste, such as Weigh the Waste, a sustainability campaign where students weighed post-consumer food waste at dining halls once a week in the fall of 2013. The student band Aural Orifice performed their Sub Human Industrial Trash Palace concert on Proctor patio on Nov. 4 with songs about food waste. While the college is working hard to procure fresh local food for students, hundreds of pounds of food is left on students’ plates at the end of every meal, according to statistics from the Weigh the Waste campaign

Middlebury supplements the produce it receives from local farms with products from the Addison County Relocalization Network and Springfield, Vt.-based Black River Produce.  “Black River Produce has probably been the most instrumental distributor… [they are] vital to the Vermont community,” Detora said.

Before Black River’s creation 1978, there was no widespread food distribution system in Vermont, but rather all small farms worked independently to distribute their products, according to Detora. By partnering with enterprises like Black River Produce, Vermont farmers are now able to reach more customers. 

The Addison County Relocalization Network plays a role in supporting local farms through its Food Hub on Exchange Street in downtown Middlebury. The Food Hub supports CSA farm shares, provides food storage and operates an online wholesale market. The college is working with the Addison County Relocalization Network to create a new, larger Food Hub on college-owned land, according to Detora. 

The college sourcing food locally also helps keep people employed in a state that is becoming increasingly more expensive to live in. Detora explained that the college considers its role as a primary economic actor in both Addison County and the state of Vermont when deciding how to use its budget. 

“We need to look at the sustainability of the state and how we as a provider can help,” Detora said. 

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 Given the lack of affordable housing statewide currently, Detora added that he fears farms may start to become short-staffed. 

In an effort to address this scarcity of affordable housing in the area, the college is collaborating with South Burlington-based Summit Properties to develop 110 low-income housing units on a college-owned lot on Seminary Street Extension. These new housing units can be inhabited by migrant farm workers and other agriculture employees, Detora said,  helping to decrease the cost of living in Vermont and keep local farms flourishing.

Detora described hydroponic farms, or growing plants in water-nutrient solutions rather than in soil, as a possible future way forward for farming issues caused by climate change. New hydroponic farms exist in Barre, Vt. and Albany, N.Y., and allow these farms to produce foods like lettuce and tomatoes typically difficult to produce in the Northeast climate. 

As Vermont begins to experience more dramatic weather and growing conditions, Detora said he sees hydroponics as a sustainable way to help the college source fruits and vegetables throughout the year, despite cold weather or heavy rain that might disrupt the growing season – as was the case with this past summer’s heavy flooding.

“We have to find alternative solutions,” Detora said, referring to the challenges of both climate change and the impact of the mounting cost of living in Vermont on agricultural workers. Low-income affordable housing, new hydroponic systems and continuing to buy from local farms may just be those solutions.