In its new sustainable food project, Yale is putting its money where its mouth is.

What began as a group of students with a vision of environmentally sound food practices has turned into an ambitious University undertaking. After months of conversations with students, dining services staff, and prominent leaders in the organic movement, Yale has decided to incorporate organic, locally grown foods into the menu of Berkeley College’s dining hall by fall 2003. The move has been met with enthusiasm, but also with uncertainty.

“Nothing like this has ever happened in the world of institutional food service anywhere,” Berkeley College Master John Rogers said. “It is unprecedented.”

But Berkeley College Dean George Levesque said, “I think people still have questions.”

Organic meat: an oxymoron?

Quinn Hamilton ’05 said she has always thought of organic food as holey worm-ridden apples.

“What does ‘organic’ really mean?” Hamilton said.

According to USDA standards implemented this month, the term “organic” applies to food grown or raised without pesticides, herbicides, hormones, antibiotics or genetic modification.

Alice Waters owns the world famous organic restaurant Chez Panisse in San Francisco. Her conversation with Yale President Richard Levin last September sparked the idea for the Berkeley project.

Waters believes the concepts of local, organic and delicious go hand in hand. This principle will underpin the Berkeley project.

“I always say this is a kind of delicious revolution,” Waters said over the phone from Italy.

Becca Falik ’04 was last year’s co-leader of Food From the Earth, a group dedicated to bringing more organic and locally grown food to Yale. Falik said even in the most educated circles there is debate over what constitutes organic food, especially with the advent of products like organic Oreos.

But Falik said as far as she and the dining services are concerned, students will not have to give up their favorite comfort snacks in the name of organics.

“Apple pie can be organic, hot dogs can be organic, milk and ice cream can be organic and come from cows that have been treated like cows rather than tortured beings,” Falik said.

By January 2003, Rogers said, Berkeley aims to offer organic coffee, organic coffee condiments, an organic salad bar, and organic breads. Huff said the university is looking into supplying all the dining halls with Fair Trade coffee, which supports small coffee farmers around the world.

Rogers said some students have been concerned that going organic would mean foregoing cheeseburgers and bacon.

“There have been some misconceptions,” Rogers said. “This project is by no means a vegetarian or vegan project. We’ll be serving our carnivorous students the same meats, except the meats will be better. They won’t be riddled with hormones and antibiotics.”

At what cost?

Susan Keppelman ’05 was generally positive about Yale’s move to incorporate more organic food into Berkeley’s menu. But Keppelman and other Berkeley students she was eating lunch with said they would be less likely to support the change if it were accompanied by increased fees.

“I would be less enthusiastic,” Keppelman said.

Levin said the increased cost of the Berkeley experiment will not be incorporated into student meal plan fees next year. But he said financing the project is one of its greatest uncertainties.

Marc Callender ’03 said he believes Yale should not be spending any extra money to procure organic food.

“I think some money and resources can be used for better things, like financial aid,” Callender said.

Experiments across the country similar to the Berkeley project have met with varying success. A project spearheaded by Waters to introduce locally grown food at Berkeley High School in California two years ago is now “defunct” because students prefer fast food to the new cafeteria offerings, The New York Times reported.

Keppelman said she could also foresee possible problems with a purely seasonal and local menu, if foods like tomatoes or fruits would be unavailable during the winter.

But, Keppelman said, “I think it’s okay because we still have so many options for places to eat.”

Beyond organic

The catalyst for the University’s interest in a large-scale sustainable food project came after the student-organized Farming and Eating in New England Conference last year, Falik said.

“Once we students organized the conference, in which Alice Waters was a key speaker — the administration became very intrigued,” Falik said. “I think they saw this as a sort of trendy thing. They could be the first. And they liked that idea.”

Committed to keeping the board fees constant for the coming year, Yale is seeking other means of financing the sustainable food project, including private donations.

Rogers said the endeavor never would have gotten off the ground if Yale had only been concerned with the bottom line.

The change came as a result of “a sincere conviction that this was the right thing to do,” Rogers said. “The self-interest that’s involved is the pride associated with a project that seems to be going good, good for the environment, good for local farm economy, and good for students.”

The effort at Yale to implement more sustainable food practices will mean more than offering chemical-free food, said Ernst Huff, the associate vice president of student finances and administrative services and spokesperson for the Berkeley project.

“The association with this is not only offering organic grown food items, but also raising awareness of how food is grown, dealing with food waste in the dining halls, and composting and recycling programs,” Huff said.

Huff said a key component of the Berkeley project is establishing contacts and long term relationships with local farmers.

“Once we’ve made a commitment to which organic [foods to offer], then obviously we’d have to have some fairly tight relationships with the farmers,” Huff said.

Feeding the revolution

Levin said if the Berkeley project proves successful, the endeavor could be used as a model for other dining halls, and, more importantly, for other universities.

Various college campuses have already begun to move in the direction of organic and sustainable food practices. Wesleyan University opened an on-campus cafe that serves organic meals. Its dining services’ stated mission is “to provide environmentally responsible food services to the Wesleyan community, primarily through purchasing practices, [and] minimized waste.” Dartmouth College operates an organic farm three miles from campus where students can work and learn about sustainable agriculture.

The Community Food Security Coalition held a conference in Seattle earlier this month centered on farm-to-school programs, titled “Farm to Cafeteria: Healthy Farms, Healthy Students.”

“These kind of things are getting talked about more and more at other universities,” Dreier said.

But Rogers said Yale’s decision to launch its sustainable food project is unprecedented in the scope of its possible impact.

Chez Panisse serves 500 people per day and purchases from 75 different farms. For some of these small operations, Waters said, Chez Panisse is the only buyer.

“Just think when you multiply that out to 12,000,” Waters said.

If Yale convinces other universities in the region to participate, Rogers said, “it could dramatically expand the community of small farmers and alter the whole economy of organic produce and meat.”

Tony Norris, a Connecticut farmer who began supplying organic produce to Wesleyan this year, agreed.

“The organic industry is consumer-driven,” Norris said. “Obviously, the more restaurants, retail [stores] or universities support local farmers, the more viable they make those local farms. For years now, everyone has been bemoaning the fact that Connecticut is losing more and more farm land every year. The way to put your money where your mouth is is to buy local and organic.”