A jug of salsa from the Yale Sustainable Food Project looks simple enough. The label, printed with soy ink on recycled paper, bears nutrition facts, ingredients and the YSFP wheelbarrow logo. The plastic, at least, is transparent.
But the salsa itself is more mysterious. In 2007, its tomatoes, onions, peppers and garlic were from Old Maid’s farm in Glastonbury, Conn., an 86-acre United States Department of Agriculture-certified organic operation run by George Purtill. The farm’s partnership with Yale began in 2005, when the YSFP contracted Purtill to provide ingredients for 26,000 pounds of salsa per year. As a result, Purtill was able to lease three additional acres of land for planting, and Yale got a bulk discount on organic tomatoes. Since the produce was from one farm only — and a local farm at that — transport was easy, and harmful carbon emissions were reduced. It was a fairy tale success story, one that Melina Shannon-DiPietro, Director of the YSFP, tells in a Nov. 2, 2009, article in The Atlantic Monthly.
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Hannah Burnett, the YSFP Lazarus Program Coordinator (named after George Lazarus ’67, a Manhattan pediatrician whose donation funds the YSFP’s educational programs) says the YSFP staff members like to talk about Purtill and his farm.
“The story we use as an example very often is the story of George Purtill and his tomatoes,” Burnett says. “He used the money we contracted him for to lease more land so he could grow all the tomatoes we needed. It worked out well.”
But Purtill hasn’t sold salsa ingredients to Yale since 2007. The story refers to the way things used to be, when the YSFP was a Yale-funded organization in charge of supplying sustainable food to the dining halls. After its founding in 2003, the YSFP initiated Yale’s effort to purchase sustainable ingredients by instituting an all-sustainable menu in Berkeley College dining hall. The response was overwhelmingly positive: Lines of students stretched out the door. By fall 2006, the YSFP succeeded in making the 11 residential college dining halls (one of the 12 was closed for renovations) and Commons dining hall serve, according to the YSFP Web site, 40 percent “sustainable” food.
At this time, Yale did not run its own dining program: Aramark, a Philadelphia-based food services company, had taken over from Yale University Dining Services (YUDS) in 1997. After six years of food from Aramark, three students and a staff member decided that Yale should purchase healthier food in a more environmentally responsible way, and they wrote the university a proposal, dated Feb. 20, 2003, for the establishment of the YSFP and the Yale Farm, a one-acre educational garden on Yale’s campus. Once the proposal was adopted, the YSFP formed partnerships with local farms such as Purtill’s and brought a new philosophy to the University’s dining: supporting local farmers who used agricultural practices that were healthy for both the land and the eater. “Sustainable” food didn’t have to be chemical-free, but it had to come as close as possible.
Alice Waters, founder and co-owner of sustainability pioneer Chez Panisse restaurant and a prominent advocate of organic and local agriculture, encouraged University President Richard Levin to support the establishment of the YSFP while Fanny Singer ’05, Waters’ daughter, was enrolled. Waters’ own conception of food “sustainability” lay at the heart of the new organization.
“Over the years, I realized that the most delicious food was grown organically in systems that supported themselves naturally,” Waters said in an e-mail. “This happens to be a common definition of growing sustainably.”
The YSFP’s goal from the start was to transfer the administration of sustainable dining to YUDS, which at the time had no real power of its own. In 2007, the YSFP encouraged Yale not to renew its contract with Aramark. The company left town, and in early 2008, Yale began to rebuild its own dining program, changing the name of YUDS to simply Yale Dining. Rafi Taherian, the current executive director of Yale Dining, was hired in March 2008, and by the fall of that year this restructured Yale organization took charge of all aspects of dining at the University.
“Sustainability is now Rafi’s responsibility,” says Burnett, the YSFP Lazarus Program Coordinator. “We [the YSFP] act in a sort of advising way. We don’t have nearly as active a role as we had in the beginning of Yale dining going sustainable.”
Taherian has been given the task of maintaining Yale’s relatively new commitment to “sustainable” food. When the YSFP relinquished control, it pledged to monitor Yale Dining’s progress. According to an August 2009 statement issued by YSFP communications coordinator Amy Jean Porter and available online, the organization had planned to issue four “report cards” on Yale Dining during the 2009-’10 school year. The first, which was due to be released in November 2009, was initially delayed and finally, as of March 2010, canceled altogether. According to Shannon-DiPietro, the YSFP director, her organization has decided to allow Yale Dining to issue its own progress reports, since Yale Dining is more familiar with the subtleties of its own daily operation. Although the YSFP officials communicate regularly with Yale Dining administrators, the YSFP has given up its initial role as watchdog.
Still, Porter of the YSFP trusts that Yale Dining will maintain and even expand what her organization started.
“We strongly encourage clarity in sourcing and labeling, a continued focus on seasonality, third-party certification and high-quality ingredients, grown and purchased in a way that is good for our health, good for the land, and good for our regional economy,” the August 2009 document says.
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Has Taherian met the YSFP’s expectations? The answer is not simple. He interprets “sustainability” differently than does Shannon-DiPietro, the YSFP director. And he has purchased from producers that the YSFP does not endorse. As for the salsa, farmer Purtill claims not to understand what happened. In 2008, the year Yale Dining took over from Aramark, Yale chose not to buy from him anymore. Taherian said the purchasing of salsa was “attached to someone in our organization,” whose name Taherian said he does not remember. This person is now retired, and the salsa commitment seems to have departed as well.
Purtill, though, claims not to care. By 2009, he had switched his entire farm to organic grain corn production, which, he says, makes more economic sense. Purtill claims that the decision to switch had little to do with Yale’s lack of patronage in 2008. To him, Yale is “just another customer,” and his contract with Yale, even though it ended less than two years ago, is old news.
“That’s such old information,” Purtill said. “That’s like ages ago. I just can’t remember now what we were doing in ’07 with them.”
Taherian stressed that salsa is not a high priority for him and that instead he focuses on the larger task of making Yale Dining more “sustainable.” Still, in December 2009, jugs of YSFP salsa remained in the dining halls, an artifact of the former system. Their appearance was just as it had been two years before, complete with the YSFP wheelbarrow logo.
The only problem was that, at the time, nobody seemed to know where the salsa was from. Gregory Ward, Manager of Pierson dining hall, did not know the salsa’s origin. Geraldine Remer, Purchasing Manager of Yale Dining, declined to comment on the salsa, saying only that it was from “a local vendor.” Was the salsa in fact two years old? Shannon-DiPietro, the YSFP Director, thought it might be.
“It could be, because it’s canned,” she said. “So we would be hitting the end of the time you should use it. That would mean we had over-ordered by three years. Ask Gerry [Remer, Purchasing Manager of Yale Dining]. She would know where it comes from.”
As of March 2010, the YSFP salsa was gone, replaced by a new salsa that Remer said comes from a “commercial supplier.” She added that Yale Dining has put its commitment to sustainable salsa on hold.
The confusion over the salsa is evidence of a rough transition. On its face, the new system is exactly what the YSFP originally wanted. A Yale organization, rather than an outside corporation, now runs the entire dining operation and has pledged to incorporate sustainable practices into more aspects of its management. Taherian, who previously was executive director of dining at Stanford University for 12 years, has already made efforts to burn less fuel, reduce paper waste, cut down electricity and water use, and educate the staff to maintain these practices.
But while Shannon-DiPietro applauds many of Taherian’s initiatives, she worries that the new executive director may have sacrificed some of the YSFP’s original goals. For instance, Taherian engaged last fall in a purchasing contract, now terminated, with Tyson Foods, a commercial meat producer that, although it does sell grass-fed beef, is just the type of industrial giant Shannon-DiPietro had pitted the YSFP against.
Taherian defends his purchasing decisions by saying that for an institution as large as Yale, buying food from small farms is neither economically nor environmentally “sustainable.” But by focusing on making Yale Dining more efficient, Taherian may be cutting too many corners, neglecting medium-sized local farms, such as Purtill’s, which can offer competitive prices. Will the YSFP have to change its success stories to fit with the new policy?
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When students arrived on campus in September 2009, something was different in the dining halls. Previously, there had been two types of labels above food items. The majority of dishes bore a white label with a blue border. Any dish with sustainable ingredients, sourced by the YSFP, carried a special label: white with a tan border, featuring the YSFP wheelbarrow logo. But by September, all dishes were apparently created equal — or that’s what their labels seemed to suggest, since they now all looked the same.
The change was easily missed. Of 20 sophomores, juniors and seniors interviewed in Pierson College dining hall, only one said he had noticed it on his own. And only one other said he noticed it “now that you mention it.” Grant Goodlin ’10, who has been student manager of Pierson dining hall since fall 2008, said he had not detected the change.
Since September, all the labels have featured a logo that reads “Yale Sustainable Dining.” But still only 40 percent of the food is from “sustainable” producers. Are the new labels deceptive?
Taherian thinks not. In his view, the labels reflect a new institutional focus on “sustainability.” Since becoming executive director of Yale Dining, Taherian has worked to reduce the damage his organization inflicts on the environment. Asked what “sustainability” means to him, he outlined a set of goals, the details of which can be found in Yale Dining’s “Sustainability Plan 2009-’13,” a document once available online, of which Taherian is credited as author.
From the “Sustainability Plan,” the goals are, in order: Purchasing from “sustainable” producers; reducing use of energy and water; recycling waste whenever possible; and educating “students, guests and employees” about “sustainability.” The fifth and sixth goals appear under one heading: “Develop ongoing partnerships with other Yale entities, peer institutes, industry, supply chains, and local, regional and national resources to develop sustainability initiatives and promote shared learning and resources.” Goal No. 5 is to “promote synergy” with local public schools’ sustainability plans, and goal No. 6 is to provide information to the National Association of College and University Food Services, a Michigan-based trade association.
Nowhere in this list of goals are the terms “sustainable” or “sustainability” defined, even though four of the six goals make prominent use of one or both of those words. The document includes an appendix of definitions, but even here, “sustainable” is not defined. Instead, the entire appendix is titled “Sustainable Definitions” and includes such terms as “family farm,” “natural,” “grass-fed,” and “organic.”
Is this to say that “sustainable” includes all of these concepts? Not exactly. Taherian says Yale Dining cannot realistically supply food for all Yale students from small “family farms,” or what he calls “hobby farms.” So what does “sustainable” mean for Yale? Without a working definition, the first goal at least — “Continue to develop sustainable supply chain management: By 2013, 60 percent of total supplies and services will come from sustainable sources as defined by procurement area” — proves hard to quantify.
On Nov. 9, 2009, roughly 20 minutes after this reporter first interviewed Taherian, a link to the document disappeared from the “Who We Are” section of the Yale Dining Web site. Taherian says the document was removed because its information was not up to date. In response to a request for an updated version of the “Sustainability Plan,” Taherian’s assistant, Pedro Tello, e-mailed a copy. The first goal in this newer document is revised so that the projected 2013 percentage of “sustainable” food is now 45 rather than 60. A footnote reads, “This goal represents a realistic target, but under ideal circumstances, Yale Dining would like to achieve 60 percent.”
In a March 2010 interview, Taherian qualified this goal still further. Now, Taherian said, 40 percent “sustainability” is not actually the current figure but the target.
“Forty percent sustainable — that’s a goal that we’re trying to achieve,” he said.
He added that he does not know what percentage of the dining hall food is “sustainable.”
“I would say we’re close,” Remer offered. “We have some difficulty measuring precisely because we transferred over from being the Aramark operation to being our own operation. Until we can establish our own data, which we’re doing, it’s hard to pinpoint it precisely.”
Shannon-DiPietro calls the 40 percent figure “an old number, an Aramark-era number.” Taherian, Remer and Shannon-DiPietro cite budget constraints as the reason for the more “realistic” projections.
“The university is going through a challenging budget time,” Shannon-DiPietro says. “And though sustainability is a critical goal, initiatives are going to grow more slowly, unless we can come up with creative ways of finding cost-effective solutions to sustainability.”
But what exactly does that word mean? Staff members of the YSFP can offer a more focused conception of the term. When Burnett, the YSFP program coordinator, talks about “sustainability,” she refers to food sustainability in particular, providing a clue as to what Taherian, in the “Sustainability Plan,” means by “sustainable sources.”
“‘Sustainable’ is food that is good for the land. It gives back to the soil — the growing method,” Burnett says. “And it’s good for the farmer. So the farmer is paid a living wage. And it’s good for the consumers. So the produce you’re eating doesn’t have toxic chemicals.”
While “sustainable” food is often organic — meaning it’s grown without the use of pesticides or herbicides — it doesn’t have to be. Yale buys “sustainable” apples, for instance, from Wayne Young, who operates his 25-acre High Hill Orchard with an Integrated Pest Management program. This means he uses pesticides and herbicides sparingly, with knowledge of how to minimize their environmental damage. Young calls his methods “eco,” since he strives to preserve the health of his land. In 2005 the YSFP established a relationship with Young that continues to this day, now under Yale Dining. Shannon-DiPietro, the YSFP Director, says sustainable produce is “organic-plus,” where the “plus” describes a grower’s awareness of the impact of his agricultural methods on the land, the community and future generations.
Lazarus, the Manhattan pediatrician who funds the YSFP’s student programs, said sustainable food requires “responsible farming. It’s responsible farming in a way that doesn’t deplete resources. … There are also fringe benefits for the local community.”
The difference between Taherian’s and Shannon-DiPietro’s conceptions of “sustainable” underlies the switch in labeling. Shannon-DiPietro focuses on the food and its source; as such, the former YSFP dining hall labels informed students about the “sustainability” of individual dishes. Taherian focuses on the efficiency of the entire dining operation; as such, his new labels inform students about the “sustainability” of Yale Dining as a whole. Shannon-DiPietro praises Taherian’s initiatives that are aimed at the dining halls themselves, such as recycling waste and reducing carbon emissions.
“[Taherian has] expanded the definition of what sustainability is,” Shannon-DiPietro says. “Like, I was thinking about the food and directly that connection to the farmer. He’s also thinking about electricity, and water, and I think that’s great.”
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But by expanding this definition, Taherian may also be watering it down. His focus on waste reduction may come at the expense of support for local medium-sized growers, such as Purtill, the farmer who once had the salsa contract. For example, as recently as December 2009, Taherian bought beef from Star Ranch, the high-end, grass-fed Angus line of Tyson Foods’ beef. Shannon-DiPietro does not want Yale to use its purchasing power to support the Arkansas-based Tyson, the world’s largest meat producer. In Shannon-DiPietro’s opinion, Taherian was trying to “convert really big purveyors to more sustainable practices” by purchasing their environmentally conscious line of products. She worried that this decision might have been a departure from the YSFP’s philosophy.
“Making Tyson like a couple points more sustainable, that’ll have a good impact in the world, but it’s not as important for Yale,” she says. “Tyson is not the model of agriculture we want in this nation. It really is not. It’s really bad food, grown in ways that are bad for the environment and bad for people growing it.”
According to the Web site of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, a 2007 investigation uncovered “sickening cruelty to animals” in Tyson slaughterhouses: a worker snapped a chicken’s back by beating it against a rail; another stabbed a chicken in the neck; groups of workers repeatedly threw birds at shackles that were intended to hold the chickens’ legs; and a slaughtering blade sometimes malfunctioned, slicing the chickens’ bodies instead of their necks.
Gary Mickelson, a spokesperson for Tyson Foods, said in an e-mail that Tyson “has been actively involved in sustainability efforts for many years.” Referring to, and then quoting, the company’s Sustainability Report, issued in 2007, Mickelson continues, “Sustainability at Tyson is a natural outgrowth of our Core Values, which call on us to ‘serve as stewards of the animals, land, and environment’ and ‘operate with integrity and trust.’ ” The 64-page document, entitled “Sustainability: It’s In Our Nature,” details the company’s “sustainable” practices, which include that Tyson has donated over 50 million pounds of protein to food banks; that it offers lean cuts of chicken, beef and pork; that it sells “chicken items” with whole grain breading; and that it buys some of its cattle, hogs and chickens from independent producers.
This excerpted list suggests yet another interpretation of that elusive concept of “sustainability.” Shannon-DiPietro thinks Tyson’s Sustainability Report skirts around real sustainability concerns without actually addressing them.
“The lumping together of food that’s healthy and the contributions to homeless shelters: Those are great, but at the same time, really what we want to be thinking about when we’re producing food is what is the impact on the land, and what is the impact on the farmer,” she says. “It looks like they have lots of room for improvement.”
Taherian’s initial decision to purchase from Tyson was based on the notion that, as he says, Yale Dining needs to purchase from producers that can match the scale of its orders. Small farms are out of the question. By placing its “sustainable” beef orders with a single, large, reliable provider, Yale cuts fuel emissions by reducing the amount of transportation, and it ensures the longevity of the purchasing relationship.
“We do not want to put our power of purchasing into a marketplace that is not designed for us,” Taherian says, explaining that if Yale buys from a five-acre farm and cleans it out of its product, the farmer will benefit, but the local community, which otherwise would buy that product at the local farmer’s market, will suffer.
“[A food source] needs to be fairly sizable to provide us with the products we need,” Remer says.
Yale Dining chose to end the relationship with Tyson because, as Remer says in an e-mail, “We must ensure that our procurement strategies meet our core values while also fulfilling our financial obligations.” Although Taherian initially thought Star Ranch met these “core values,” he became disenchanted when the company refused to adhere to Yale Dining’s request for hormone-free meat products.
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But Shannon-DiPietro admits that there aren’t many other “sustainable” beef sources large enough to stock Yale’s dining halls. Before Yale Dining took over procurement, the YSFP bought “sustainable,” grass-fed beef from two providers: Wolfe’s Neck Farm, a cooperative of beef producers in Maine, and Dole and Bailey, a Massachusetts-based distributor of meats, seafood, fruits and vegetables. Neither of these sources perfectly fit Shannon-DiPietro’s ideals. The cows from Wolfe’s Neck Farm were raised in Maine, slaughtered in New York, and then distributed in Pennsylvania, making for high carbon emissions in transport. Similarly, the beef from Dole and Bailey came from Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts, and New York farmers. The product was hardly local. But it wasn’t Tyson, and to Shannon-DiPietro, that counts for a lot.
Now, according to Taherian, Remer and Shannon-DiPietro, all of the beef in Yale’s residential dining halls and in Commons is grass-fed and grain-finished, meaning the cows are fed grain only briefly, before they are slaughtered. It comes from Meyer Natural Angus, a hormone- and antibiotic-free producer with ranches in Montana, Missouri and Oklahoma.
The switch to Meyer is part of Yale Dining’s recent effort to increase its commitment to “sustainable” meat providers. By the end of April 2010, all of the chicken in the residential dining halls and in Commons will come from Murray’s Chicken, a family-operated farm in the Catskills, less than 125 miles from New Haven, that grows its birds without drugs, on vegetarian feed. Shannon-DiPietro is delighted that Remer has established a purchasing relationship with Murray’s.
“It’s humane-certified,” Remer says. “It’s a very nice operation.”
For fruits and vegetables, Shannon-DiPietro wants to make sure Taherian focuses on purchasing from medium-sized farms (on the scale of 60 to 80 acres) in Connecticut or in neighboring states. These farms, which include Purtill’s Old Maid’s Farm and, though it is relatively small, Young’s High Hill Orchard, epitomize what Shannon-DiPietro thinks of as “sustainable.” They are close to Yale, they use environmentally conscious growing practices, and they are large enough to meet Yale’s annual demand. While Taherian continually invokes a dichotomy between industrial producers and “hobby farms,” Shannon-DiPietro stresses the importance of buying from providers that fall in the middle of those extremes.
“I think that’s where the magic of local collaboration happens and where an institution can really change the face of agriculture in a region,” she says.
Although Taherian agrees on principle with Shannon-DiPietro’s goals, he takes issue with a farm-by-farm, or even dish-by-dish, approach to “sustainability.” Just as important as the food provider, in his view, is the buyer. According to Remer, calling a particular dish in the dining hall “sustainable,” as the YSFP once did, requires that all aspects of its purchasing and preparation be “sustainable.”
Remer offers an example: under the previous labeling system, a chef who could not find “sustainable” ground pepper for a dish couldn’t call the dish “sustainable.” Such strictness, she said, was unrealistic.
Yale Dining has resigned itself to an inherent ambiguity — and practical unfeasibility, given the current budget — of pure “sustainability” in an individual dish. The solution that the organization has settled on is to label all food items “sustainable,” to reflect an institutional pledge: a goal yet to be achieved. Remer says that the full meaning of that logo, “Yale Sustainable Dining,” cannot possibly be captured on a dining hall label.
“The space available on each menu card is limited so it cannot always accommodate [information about] a full sustainability commitment along with the required nutritional information,” Remer says in an e-mail.
But the ideology behind this new method of labeling, in which “sustainable” refers not to an individual dish but to the entire organization, has not been publicized. Shannon-DiPietro believes that, at the very least, a label should identify the origins of a dish’s ingredients.
“If we don’t make trade-offs clear to the community, then we’re in a situation where we’re sort of encouraging blindness toward the food system,” she cautioned. “I think people really want this information — we see that with the move to people buying at farmer’s markets, people coming to the Yale Farm.”
Jacob Liberman ’10 is the only student of the 20 interviewed in Pierson dining hall who noticed the labeling change on his own. He sympathizes with Shannon-DiPietro’s position, saying, “You don’t know what’s sustainable anymore. You can’t tell whether a certain meal is made with all sustainable ingredients.”
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In a March 2010 meeting at the Yale Dining offices, Taherian and Remer, of Yale Dining, and Shannon-DiPietro, of the YSFP, talked jovially about their fantasy of building a chicken coop on Yale’s West Campus. Remer says in an e-mail that the YSFP’s relationship to Yale Dining is “collaborative.” But the YSFP has no official role in dining hall management or food procurement, apart from providing Yale Dining with information about farms. Burnett’s characterization of the YSFP’s role as “advising” seems more accurate.
Since Yale Dining took over the management of “sustainable” food in dining halls, the YSFP has been able, as Shannon-DiPietro put it, to “focus on the educational half of things.” During the school year, the YSFP hosts speakers, teaches food-making and agriculture workshops and periodically runs community-wide festivals. It also works with the Environmental Studies undergraduate major and the graduate program in Agrarian Studies, educating students and helping to develop academic courses.
Although the August 2009 YSFP press release advertises a plan to issue “report cards” on Yale Dining’s achievements, the YSFP has surrendered that job to Yale Dining, allowing the organization to monitor its own progress.
“Rafi [Taherian] and I agreed this could most effectively been done by [Yale] Dining — and would promote long-term success if owned by [Yale] Dining,” Shannon-DiPietro said in an e-mail.
Still, the YSFP does maintain an ideological and practical influence on Yale Dining. Starting in 2006, Shannon-DiPietro worked with the then-Co-Director of the YSFP, Joshua Viertel, to design and secure funding for a new job: forager coordinator. The job, essentially, is to seek out local, “sustainable” farms that can sell on a scale large enough for Yale dining halls, and to find local processors that can preserve (in an environmentally responsible manner) those farms’ summer crops for consumption later in the year. As of fall 2009, a grant from the Connecticut Department of Agriculture funds the position. Shannon-DiPietro says the state’s support for the forager is “phenomenal” news, a sign of its involvement in promoting ecological farming. Ian Pocock, the forager coordinator, started work on November 2, 2009. In an Atlantic Monthly article, published on Pocock’s first day on the job, Shannon-DiPietro half-jokingly calls him a “superhero.”
“Ian’s job, from my viewpoint, is less like that of the high-brow restaurant forager and more like that of the old-time village matchmaker,” she wrote, referring to the way in which Pocock “matches” farms to Yale.
Put another way, Pocock’s job is to combine Shannon-DiPietro’s idealism with Taherian’s realism. He works with both the YSFP and Yale Dining, but he is on the staff of neither organization and is employed by the Connecticut Department of Agriculture. He strives to address Shannon-DiPietro’s “sustainability” concerns while helping Taherian put Yale Dining’s “sustainability” initiatives into action.
“A lot of us in broader sustainability movements hold high ideals for both ‘local’ and ‘sustainable,’ ” Pocock says. “Those are goals that Yale Dining has as well. But as I’ve said, we’re serving on the order of 14,000 plates a day. That’s very different than me as an individual purchaser. We’ve committed ourselves to greening the dining program and making it sustainable over the long term.”
Pocock credits the YSFP for doing the initial work to make Yale Dining’s current “sustainability” goals possible. And he stresses the importance of expanding, rather than altering, that foundation.
“Once they [the YSFP] did a lot of that footwork it became much more practical for [Yale] Dining to take the role on themselves,” he says. “We owe a lot of gratitude to the Sustainable Food Project for doing that groundbreaking work. Hopefully we can work in tandem with them to develop it even further.”
As Pocock attempts to ease the transition from the YSFP to Yale Dining, a different aspect of the purchasing process remains constant. Yale works with Fowler FreshPoint, a fresh produce distributor, to buy fruits and vegetables from farms. David Yandow, executive vice president of sales for FreshPoint Connecticut, is the middleman in the dining hall food purchasing operation; he buys directly from the farmers and then supplies the food to Yale. Yandow has worked with Yale since the early days of the YSFP, and he says that much of the current purchasing — for fruits and vegetables, at least — is actually the same as it was then.
According to Yandow, Yale Dining has vegetable contracts with several medium- or large-scale local farms, which the YSFP considers “sustainable.” In December 2009, green beans from Fair Weather Acres farm in Rocky Hill, Conn., were served in the dining halls. Yandow says dining halls also served alfalfa sprouts from Amalgamated Produce, Inc., in Bridgeport, Conn.; Brussels sprouts from Groutin Farm in Farmington, Conn.; and apples from Young’s High Hill Orchard in Meriden, Conn.
“Our goal here is to support local farmers. Big time,” Yandow says. “We’re not ever changing that.”
Yandow credits some of his current “sustainability” practices to what Shannon-DiPietro taught him. The decision to buy from Integrated Pest Management farms, for instance, came from Shannon-DiPietro, and Yandow says the choice has clarified the way he thinks about “sustainable” produce: For an institution as large as Yale, buying “organic” (chemical-free) crops is often unrealistic, and IPM (limited use of pesticides or herbicides) presents an alternative that is nearly as healthy for the consumer and the land. In the case of tomatoes, which in 2009 were hit early by Late Blight fungus, growers who didn’t use any chemicals witnessed the destruction of their entire crop.
Still, Yandow emphasizes that Yale Dining has room for improvement, especially regarding beef and dairy. Last fall he ran a series of educational farm visits for Yale students on Saturdays, which started at Rose’s Berry Farm in Glastonbury, Conn., and continued to other farms in the region. Robert Hence, a Produce Buyer for FreshPoint, says that Shannon-DiPietro, Taherian, and Remer have been on these trips. Yandow cites the YSFP’s founding, by a group of concerned students, as a good model for future change. He says students need to put pressure on Yale to buy beef locally — not from Montana, Missouri, or Oklahoma.
According to Shannon-DiPietro and Taherian, “sustainable” beef producers in Connecticut are not large enough to supply Yale’s dining halls. But Shannon-DiPietro, like Yandow, places the onus on concerned citizens — perhaps students — to encourage local beef producers to combine into a larger group.
“There are great people raising cattle for beef in Connecticut,” Shannon-DiPietro says. “It’s mostly on a farmer’s market scale, though. It would be exciting if someone created a cooperative to bring those farmers together and make them big enough to supply Yale.”
Meantime, Yale Dining will make do with what resources it has. A combination of Yale budget cuts and a dearth of “sustainable” buying options makes Taherian’s job difficult.
“Organic [food] is not always locally available,” Yandow says. “In New England, we get weather. It’s too dry, it’s too hot, it’s too cold, it’s too wet. It’s a bitch being a farmer.”