A pivotal moment: Kenyon hosts national farm-to-cafeteria conference

There were ranchers and vegetarians, community activists and government officials, farmers and farm co-op founders. There were agricultural extension agents and alternative-ag enthusiasts, food service directors from institutions of every stripe, and educators at every level. They came, literally, from every corner of the country--Brooklyn, New York, and Ignacio, Colorado; Wenatchee, Washington, and Pioneer, Louisiana. And their concerns ranged from children's nutrition to marketing strategies for family farms.

The place was Kenyon, and the event was the second national "farm to cafeteria" conference, a gathering that reflects surging interest in connecting American consumers with food grown close to home. Cosponsored by Kenyon, the Community Food Security Coalition, and Farm Aid, the conference--titled "Putting Local Food on the Table"--brought more than three hundred participants to Gambier from June 16 to 18, to share knowledge, insights, and encouragement.

"It was fabulous," said Howard Sacks, professor of sociology and director of the College's Rural Life Center. "What I heard people saying, again and again, was how this conference constituted a pivotal moment in a national movement. People involved in local-food initiatives from all over the country felt truly validated--they realized, we're not alone."

Sacks, who is currently serving as a senior advisor to Kenyon President S. Georgia Nugent and who helped to organize the conference, noted that the College was chosen as the conference site because its own farm-to-dining-hall program, Food for Thought, is emerging as a national model. Indeed, Nugent opened the conference by announcing that the College had just received a $250,000 grant from the McGregor Fund of Detroit, Michigan, to support public programs, student and faculty research, and classroom activities related to Food for Thought.

The June conference featured exhibits, films, field trips, and two keynote addresses, one by noted Ohio Amish farmer and author David Kline, the other by the nationally known New York University nutritionist Marion Nestle, author of Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health.

But most of the three-day event was devoted to workshops covering the logistical challenges involved in bringing local foods to such institutions as schools, colleges, hospitals, and retirement homes. A co-op linking farmers in the Deep South with school cafeterias, for example, found that it had to solve problems of packaging, shipping, and food storage, not to mention translating between the farmers' "bushels" and the food service directors' "cases." A group seeking to introduce local foods into the school lunches in Madison, Wisconsin, had to adapt to a centralized school-district assembly line in which six cooks put together lunches for forty schools every day, processing ninety meals a minute.

"Start small" was one of the bywords of the conference. "Be patient and solve problems creatively" was another. A theme that surfaced consistently was the need to build relationships and foster connections--take food-service workers on farm tours, bring farmers into the classroom, forge partnerships linking teachers, parents, food service directors, farmers, distributors, local officials. Underlying much of the discussion was a conviction that "big food," in the form of corporate agriculture and multinational food companies, is harming American health and the environment, as well as the interests of farmers, consumers, and communities.

The meals at the conference were, fittingly, local in origin. Aramark, which runs the food service at the College, worked with Lannings Foods of Mount Vernon to bring in food from Ohio producers--for example, cottage cheese and yogurt from the Broughton Dairy in Marietta, beef from Bruce Conrad of Knox County, lettuce and spinach from Hartville Farms in Hartville.

"We had table-top information sheets in Peirce Hall," said Sacks, "and menus listing the food producers for each meal, along with labels on every serving dish showing the food's origin. A key goal of Food for Thought is to raise consciousness about where our food comes from."

During the last meal of the conference, he noted, the participants called for Aramark general manager Niles Gebele and executive chef Brian Merlo to come out of the kitchen. The two received a prolonged ovation.

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