Campus dining gets back to seasonal, local
What was once necessity is now virtue.
When Cornell College was founded in 1853, everyone—but especially people living in rural areas like Mount Vernon—ate differently. Their diet was tied to the seasons and what grew in gardens, yards, and the wild. C. William Heywood, late professor of history, wrote about the eating habits of the first Cornellians in “Cornell College: A Sesquicentennial History.”
Students and faculty members who resided in the seminary building ate their meals at two long tables in the common dining room. Stephen Fellows and his wife sat at either end of the larger of the two tables and filled the individual plates from large serving platters. In an age of no refrigeration or ice in the summer and very slow transportation, the fare was by necessity plain and limited. Fresh fruits and vegetables were available only in the summer when they were ripe in local yards and gardens and when crabapples, grapes, plums, and berries were found growing wild. At other times of the year there were dried peaches and apples, along with potatoes and other vegetables that would keep in storage. Meat was served three times a day, and eggs were in plentiful supply, as were bread, doughnuts, and pies.
Things might not be exactly the same—the president and his wife don’t serve every student anymore—but once again Cornell’s dining experience is tied to the seasons and what’s available from local growers. Menus change based on the seasons, and despite a global network of food delivery and the easy availability of preserved food, Bon Appétit, Cornell’s dining services provider, gets 40 percent of the food it serves locally—from within about a 150-mile radius of campus. Most of the food served in the Hilltop Café and Zamora’s Market, as well as the food served at catered events and the many baked goods on offer, are cooked from scratch in kitchens in the Thomas Commons.
Fruit comes from orchards around Mount Vernon, as does other produce throughout the year. Turkey comes from Ferndale Farms in Cannondale, Minnesota—a bit more than 150 miles away, but by far the best choice because the third-generation farm raises its turkeys humanely, said Mike Short, the head chef at Bon Appétit at Cornell. The company has a long relationship with the farm, he said, and a number of Bon Appétit locations at other Midwestern colleges also get their turkey from the farm.
Eating locally-sourced food is a major trend right now, including among college students.
“They’re interested in where the food comes from,” said Joan Homrich, general manager of Bon Appétit at Cornell. “They want to know about the ingredients, and the preparation too.”
In general, a lot of students still have the taste they’ve always had. The station Bon Appétit calls “Comfort Food,” which offers hamburgers and turkey burgers, fries, and
chicken strips, is very popular. But the Hilltop Café also has stations every day that offer Asian-inspired food choices, and Latin flavors, and they’re popular as well. Also popular, perhaps surprisingly, is the vegan and vegetarian station. Students sometimes tell the servers that they aren’t vegan, but they like the food the station offers.
Homrich is glad that students are being exposed to different kinds of food—that’s part of what she sees as an educational mission. Another part of that educational mission is getting students in touch with the people who produce their food. So Bon Appétit sponsored the inaugural Hilltop Harvest Festival in early October, which hosted a farmer’s market for the campus and Mount Vernon community that included farmers whose produce students eat in the Hilltop Café and Zamora’s Market. She’d also like to see an expansion of the items Zamora’s offers for sale from local farmers, including jellies and sauces.
Local eating might be a hot trend right now, but for Bon Appétit it’s a mission. Gary Nabhan ’73, an author and food-sustainability activist (see story on page 20), has worked with the company before. “They’re one of, if not the, best, in terms of their commitment to locally sourced and sustainably produced food,” he said.
Homrich, who serves on the Linn County Food Systems Council, said that the reasoning behind Bon Appétit’s commitment is simple—it makes better food.
“We think that if you choose your ingredients carefully, buy them locally, and process them less, you end up with a better product,” she said.