On Tuesday, Sept. 23, Bon Appétit hosted Eat Local Challenge Day, not only in Stav Hall but also all around the country. Eat Local Challenge Day stemmed Bon Appétit’s Farm to Fork initiative, which aims to “purchase seasonal ingredients from small, owner-operated farms and ranches within a 150-mile radius.”
At St. Olaf, more than 20 percent of the food served falls within the Farm to Fork category. The chefs at St. Olaf work directly with local farmers to purchase meat and produce to achieve these partnerships. According to the Bon Appétit Web site, “by buying directly from farmers, we have much more control over what types of agribusiness we are supporting. We support true family farms where the owners live on or nearby the land, work it themselves, and therefore are conscientious stewards.”
While the once-a-semester Eat Local Day is always an opportunity for St. Olaf students to eat only food grown within about 150 miles of the school on owner-operated farms, this year’s challenge was different. In addition to its Farm to Fork initiative, which was launched in 1999, Bon Appétit unveiled its Fork to Farm program, through which Bon Appétit gave grants to businesses with which it works.
“The Fork to Farm program was designed to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the Farm to Fork program as a way to give money back to some of our farmers,” said Randy Clay, Board Manager of Bon Appétit at St. Olaf College.
According to the Web site, “on Eat Local Challenge Day, more than 26,000 students, corporate employees, museum goers and workers at Bon Appétit cafés around the country cast their votes to determine which 10 Farm to Fork vendors will receive a Bon Appétit Fork to Farm Grant of $5,000 for a specific project to grow their business.”
Stav Hall, one of the single biggest sites served by Bon Appétit anywhere in the nation, was certainly no exception. During lunch on Sept. 23, each student, employee orguest who entered Stav received a ticket. After finishing their lunch, these Bon Appétit customers then used their tickets to vote for a Farm to Fork farm to win a grant.
“I think we had about 100 of our staff members vote, so the majority of our staff voted,” Clay said. “And for students, it was somewhere around 10 percent. It was more than 300 votes, which was good.”
After all of the votes were tallied – at St. Olaf and around the United States – two farms in each of five geographical regions were awarded grants. In each region, one winner was a “guest pick” and the other a “staff pick.”
In the Midwest, a region that included Bon Appétit customers in Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio, Tennessee, Wisconsin and, of course, Minnesota, Northfield’s own Open Hands Farm won the “guest pick” grant. According to its grant application, Open Hands Farm is a “Certified Organic 10-acre fruit and vegetable farm, growing over 40 types and 200 varieties of fruits and vegetables, committed to creating a thriving farm ecosystem and habitat.”
To apply for the $5,000 grant, each farm had to have a plan in place for a specific project it would execute with the help of the Fork to Farm money. Open Hands Farm, which focuses largely on root vegetables in addition to other produce, is in the process of building a root crop storage facility so that the farm can grow more root vegetables in the summer and continue to store and sell them throughout the winter. As of now, the farm grows and sells about 15,000 pounds of roots each year and runs out of these vegetables by January. Open Hands Farm said it would use the Fork to Farm grant to help purchase the washing and packing equipment needed for this growing root crop business.
According to its grant application, Open Hands Farm has already been providing root vegetables for Bon Appétit at St. Olaf and Carleton, and hopes “to begin serving other Bon Appétit accounts with the roots we’ll be growing and storing.”
Clay emphasized the importance of both the Farm to Fork program and the Fork to Farm initiative in helping consumers start to understand from where their food comes. Clay said that he and Bon Appétit staff are eager to give students behind-the-scenes tours of Stav Hall.
“The more often we can give students a behind-the-scenes tour of how we operate, the more it sinks in to the student body what actually a Farm to Fork program, for example, means,” Clay said. “On paper, it’s one thing. ‘Oh, that sounds cool.’ But to actually get to see it is when people start to make the connections as to what Bon Appétit is really about.”
Class groups, student organizations, residence hall corridors and anyone else who is interested can schedule a tour. In fact, Clay urges students who have not already done so to get a closer look at the way their food makes its way from a farm to their forks, and to begin to understand that “it’s not just magic that all of sudden there is food on our plate.”