The New Organic

By Charlotte Bruce Harvey ’78 / July / August 2005
April 28th, 2007

One day during her senior year, Louella Hill '04 charged into Ruth Simmons's office during the president's open hours, all fired up over a cause she felt was critical: If Rhode Island farms are to survive, she lectured Simmons, then big institutions like Brown need to make a serious commitment to buying locally grown food. "This has to become a core value," she pleaded.

Brown students often get fired up over important causes, and this was not the first time a student had lectured Simmons about the University's moral or social responsibilities. Looking back on the incident this spring, Hill laughs. "I had no ideas - just passion," she says, "and Ruth told me calmly" - here Hill smoothes her skirt and does an uncanny imitation of the president's level demeanor -

" 'You have to organize your thoughts: What would this involve? What would it cost?' "

One morning a year later, Hill found herself standing in line next to Simmons at the Rhode Island Department of Motor Vehicles. "It was totally random," Hill says. "I had a stack of brochures with me, so I handed her one and said, 'Hi, Ruth, I hope you'll be coming to the farmer's market today.'"

Since that meeting in Simmons's office, Hill has become a visible force in a nascent movement to change eating habits at dining halls across the United States - all while supporting environmentally benign farming and saving small farms. Her honors thesis, "Localizing the Foodshed," played off the word watershed and argued the need to connect Rhode Island growers with the state's large institutional markets. The best way to save local farmers, she reasoned, was to keep their produce local, to provide a market that is stable, easy-to-reach, and profitable.

All change starts with small steps, and Hill began by helping weigh produce at a weekly on-campus farmer's market organized by a group of students and Brown dining staff who called themselves Community Harvest. The market was so successful - and Hill was so determined - that dining services hired her part-time as a food systems coordinator - or "local food ambassador" as she and her boss prefer to put it - after she graduated. Brown was increasing its use of local produce, and Hill and her thesis advisor, who heads the state's agriculture division, won a grant from the Rhode Island Foundation to link local farmers with restauranteurs and big institutional buyers; their Web site is Hill won an Environmental Protection Agency grant under which environmental studies students calculated the air quality savings from reduced shipping.

When the Ratty, Brown's mammoth, vintage-1950 refectory, was remodeled last year, each of its four food lines was given a distinctive identity. In addition to the bistro, trattoria, and deli lines came Roots & Shoots, which showcased local produce in butternut sformato with shiitake mushrooms, roast pumpkin stuffed with apples, and a bruschetta bar. Next to the line, Hill ran heirloom tomato and avocado tastings, and displayed seedlings for students to identify. Health-conscious students, especially vegetarians and vegans, welcomed the change.

Tireless, Hill took students and staff on weekend tours of local orchards and vegetable and dairy farms, all in a natural-gas-powered van owned by the Center for Environmental Studies. She helped growers unload produce and make change at farmer's markets, and when they were short-staffed during the harvest, she organized volunteer crews. Brown bought the bounty.

This April, Hill ran a four-day forum that drew New Englanders from every link on the food chain. At a session on institutional buying, farmers in T-shirts and jeans sat at the table with chefs wearing whites and toques, and purchasing agents and regulators in coats and ties - people whose paths seldom crossed but whose interests were inextricably entwined.

Fresh-faced and earnest, Hill promoted her projects with zeal and a zany but contagious sense of humor, hand-painting exuberant sandwich boards and posters and planting them around campus. She pursued media attention as enthusiastically, signing her e-mails, "Peas and carrots, Louella." (She plied the BAM with a perfectly ripe cantaloupe, and a silky portabello mushroom she'd grown in a box under her desk.) Last fall, when a source of local milk became available, Hill made sure the entire campus was aware: she taped off a grid on the Green, put a Holstein named Candi in it, and took bets where the cow would plant her first pie.

By May, Hill knew the president had gotten her message. "Ruth's chef called dining services to see how he could buy local for her at home." But Hill had already beaten him to the punch; she'd bought Simmons a share in the community supported agriculture (CSA) program at Southside Community Land Trust, in South Providence.

"We'll just bring her produce by," Hill said.

Although a couple of schools began buying locally in the 1980s and early 1990s, the idea of matching large institutions with local farmers only caught fire in the last few years. Kristin Markley, a central Pennsylvania farmer who runs a nonprofit called the Farm to College Program, estimates that about 200 colleges and universities now run "fairly substantial programs." In June, Kenyon College hosted the Second National Farm to Cafeteria Conference to discuss local-buying efforts at colleges and universities, as well as in school districts and other large institutions such as prisons and hospitals. Hill attended, as did representatives from dozens of schools across the country. Markley, who has surveyed about sixty schools with local-buying programs (listed at, reports that the schools spend an average of $147,000 a year on local foods. But the range is enormous, from a couple of hundred dollars' worth of late-summer tomatoes or apples to more than a million dollars a year.

Bates College, which began buying locally in 1994, now spends $1,125,000 of its $4,500,000 annual food budget on Maine-grown apples, potatoes, vegetables, and meats. Kitchen staff meet with farmers before each planting season to discuss the college's needs. The program is tied to Bates's recycling program, which trucks cooking scraps to a local composting center in order to save on landfill costs. The trash savings help defray the higher cost of organic produce.

Yale tops Markley's chart, spending $1,500,000 a year to buy not only local produce, but milk, poultry, lamb, and grass-fed beef. The movement received a boost from what one participant at the Brown conference called "The Alice Factor." Alice Waters, the chef-owner of the pioneering California restaurant Chez Panisse, became active in Yale's food purchasing policies after her daughter became a student there. Waters persuaded the administration to buy organic and local produce for the dining hall in her daughter's residential college, Berkeley. John Turenne, who oversaw the process as Yale's executive chef, says that when other students began forging IDs to get into the Berkeley dining hall, the university extended the program throughout the other colleges.

The benefits abound. As any farmer's-market shopper knows, just-picked produce is fresher and tastes better. When fruits and vegetables don't have to travel long distances, farmers can plant varieties bred for taste, not durability or uniform packing size. As a result students can eat fragile, juicy peaches that would never make it cross-country and tomatoes that smell of the vine, not the corrugated cardboard box they were shipped in from Florida.

Small farms tend to be easier on the environment than their big agribusiness competitors. Small-scale farmers are more likely to use sustainable methods of agriculture and to rely on organic fertilizers and crop rotation to preserve the soil. They're more conservative in their use of pesticides and therefore pollute the watershed less. While few schools can afford to buy all-organic, buying local goes a good part of that distance: supporting transitional farmers who've cut back on the use of hormones, antibiotics, pesticides, and chemical fertilizers, but haven't met the USDA's organic standards. Plus, driving a truckload of apples twenty miles across the state uses nowhere near the amount of fossil fuel that transporting them from Washington State or New Zealand does. As Louella Hill puts it, "Local is the new organic."

At some schools, local produce means campus-grown produce. Vassar and Cornell won grants from New York State to create organic farms on campus. At Middlebury, which has been a leader in local buying, student organizers planted their first cover crop of winter rye on a three-acre organic garden in the fall of 2002. Brown students involved in a Group Independent Study Project (GISP) on sustainable agriculture pressed dining services last year to establish a farm, but they abandoned the idea, says GISP member Lindsay Hegeman '08, because space on an urban campus is just too tight.

If Hill is local food's missionary at Brown, Virginia Dunleavy is its visionary. She became interested in the issue at a national food service directors conference in 2001, where an Ohio University administrator raved that "this is the way of the future, a real win-win," she says. Intrigued, Dunleavy started reading up on the subject. "In our industry," she says, "there are very few win-wins." She was not going to miss one.

Not long after the Ohio conference, a group of students approached her about using fair-trade coffee in the dining halls. Campus coffee shops and convenience stores were already selling it, but that was retail. "We can't afford it in the dining halls," Dunleavy told students, but what Brown could do was buy more food locally, giving fair-trade business to nearby farmers. Brown would be helping the community, at a time when it "is getting grief about not paying taxes," she says. In the 1930s, Rhode Island was home to more than 3,000 farms; now there are 858 - two -thirds of which have turned to horticulture and turf production. Rhode Island is now the number-one supplier of turf to Saudi Arabia, a statistic that drives Hill wild. "Just think of all that topsoil being scraped up and sent overseas!" she vents. "It's irreplaceable!"

In 2002, Dunleavy helped the students organize as Community Harvest. "One of the things about Brown is if you bring something to the table, people say no," she says, "but if a kid brings it to the table, you've got a chance." Dining services began buying apples from a nearby orchard. Initially students balked. The thin-skinned, crisp Macouns and Pippins weren't as pretty as the glossy waxed fruit they were used to eating. "We had to do a lot of educating," Dunleavy admits. But students got their courage up, bit in, and apple consumption had soon tripled.

Community Harvest put together a trial-run farmer's market. Farmers set up a half-dozen booths, selling fresh-cut zinnias and sunflowers, as well as peaches, plums, apples, and a variety of vegetables. Employees loaded up on the week's shopping. Students stocked their mini-fridges. When Dunleavy logged onto her e-mail the following morning, she found 150 messages - all begging her to make the market a regular feature. Before long, Executive Chef John O'Shea could be seen popping round the market on Wednesdays, chatting with the farmers and picking out eggplants, peppers, squash, and cucumbers for the kitchen. Purchasing director Peter Rossi began scouting more sources for still more produce.

Rossi is sanguine about all this now, but all did not go smoothly at the outset. As he told a group of food service representatives this spring: "I get here. I get all my systems and vendors in line, and then Ginnie tells me, 'Okay, now we're going to buy local produce!' " He drew a big laugh from the thirty or so people at the table as he shook his head and grinned. Distribution was one problem. Billing was another: Rossi had to teach farmers to write invoices so he could pay them. Packaging was another hurdle: farmers pulled up to the loading docks with fruit and vegetables in bushel baskets, when the kitchen staff needed them in standard-size cardboard boxes they could stack in the big walk-in refrigerators.

One key factor worked in the University's favor: Brown buys its own food, rather than contracting with a large distributor like Aramark. Once Rossi was able to identify farmers, he could buy from them directly. Another advantage Brown held lay in the nature and history of Rhode Island farms. Historically, says agriculture chief Ken Ayars, the state has been home to small farms, independently run and accustomed to direct marketing. Rhode Island farms rank second nationally in direct marketing sales. In other words, these farmers weren't used to working with middlemen any more than Brown was.

Still, there were some near-crises. One day a farmer arrived at the loading dock behind the Ratty with fat heirloom tomatoes - the kind that would make a California chef ecstatic. But looking at those "flower baskets full of lumpy tomatoes," John O'Shea saw nothing but a train wreck. This fruit wouldn't fit in his slicers, he was certain, and there was no way kitchen staff could slice all that fruit by hand. Plus, the tomatoes had yellow blotches. Who was going to eat yellow tomatoes? He called Rossi in a panic.

"They were gorgeous," counters Dunleavy. "They had little yellow spots on them." But O'Shea was right; students complained. They figured the University was trying to pass off rotten tomatoes on them. "A lot of kids eat with their eyes," Dunleavy says philosophically. "We all do. So I told Louella, 'We're changing a culture here,'" and Hill set about teaching students about fruits and vegetables. She put whole stalks of brussels sprouts in the Ratty and held contests to see who could guess what they were. The results were not encouraging, but she persevered.

Dunleavy did too. When a farmer said he had four bushels of corn, she was thrilled. O'Shea, a thoughtful and cautious man who has worked in the Ratty since the 1970s, said no way: "My apprehension has sometimes been mistaken for resistance," he says, shaking his head. "But I'm always concerned with cost. I told Ginnie, ÔDo you know how much labor that's gonna take?'"

Undeterred, Dunleavy decided to hold a shucking contest on the Green. She ordered yellow T-shirts emblazoned, "I got shucked at the Ratty" for anyone who participated. "In a half-hour it was all over," says O'Shea. As the contest's judge, he found his picture in the Providence Journal the next day. The two fastest teams - it was a tie between two wings of Hegeman dormitory - won a pizza party for sixty.

On one of Hill's farm tours last fall, a grad student told Dunleavy her parents grew organic avocados in California. "I know it's a little bit of a stretch," Dunleavy says," but if you define local in terms of community, not geography." She laughs, "After all, you can't grow avocados in Rhode Island." For a week this March, dining services staff were on what they dubbed "the avocado watch," awaiting the arrival of ten cases of fruit. The avocados were picked hard and would ripen in five days; but they couldn't be flown, or they'd freeze. So they traveled by train and truck. When they touched down at the Ratty's loading dock, plans were on for a guacamole fest.

Two years into the project, Brown now serves whatever fresh local fruits and vegetables it can during the harvest season, root vegetables and other storage crops into the winter, and apples, jams, and honey year round. Tuesday mornings there's a farm-fresh breakfast, with local eggs, and milk from Rhody Fresh, a cooperative of Rhode Island dairy farmers.

Wanton Farm in Jamestown, Rhode Island, is precisely the kind of farm that Hill and Dunleavy don't want to see turn into a sod factory. For three generations, the Dutra family has been raising dairy cows on their 140 acres overlooking Narragansett Bay and the Newport Bridge. Across the road, neighbors raise belted Galloways - the cattle that look like Oreos - for beef. In the salt marsh below, glossy ibis wade through Marsh Meadows.

On a crystalline April morning , the Dutra's fifty-five milk cows shuffle around the pasture, bulky black-and-white patterns against verdant spring growth. Uphill stands an antique windmill. In a field below are sixty heifers, and further downhill, fields await the planting of alfalfa and hay, and corn for winter silage. The pastures are fertilized with manure only. The cows are free of growth hormones and get antibiotics only if ill.

Last year, Joe and Jessie Dutra joined four other farms to establish Rhody Fresh, which uses a cold process to separate its milk. (Most milk is heated twice during processing; "It tastes burned," Joe says.) Rhody Fresh milk is heated only once, for pasteurization.

Rhode Island is home to just sixteen dairy farms now. An acre of farmland sells for more in Rhode Island than anywhere else in the United States, and most dairy farmers have sold out, unable to make a profit selling to the conglomerates that handle 80 percent of U.S. milk. "But you can only cash in once, says Joe Dutra. "And I don't know what I'd do after."

Rhody Fresh sold $1.5 million of milk in its first year and plans to expand. "Brown is volume," says the company's president, Jim Hines, who aims to provide all of the University's milk. All that stands in the way is packaging: Brown's milk dispensers - stainless steel refrigerated boxes with mechanical udders - require five-gallon bags, not the half-gallon cartons Rhody Fresh currently uses. For now, kitchen staff put out cartons on ice when they serve Rhody Fresh Tuesday mornings, but that's not viable long-term. "I'm talking with Peter Rossi about this," says Hines optimistically. "Brown is unique in that it's really concerned about this - Louella, Peter, Ginnie - all of them."

Rossi, in turn, is confident that they can solve the packaging problem. He just applied the same approach, after all, to the fair-trade coffee problem that triggered the whole local-food movement at Brown. Costs for fair-trade coffee have come down enough to make it viable for the dining halls, he says, and the biggest impediment to serving it is Brown's dependence on Autocrat, an old Rhode Island company, to provide and service its coffeemakers. Rossi put Autocrat in touch with Equal Exchange, a Canton, Massachusetts, fair-trade company that imports coffee directly from growers worldwide, and the two companies have worked out an arrangement. Next fall, says Rossi, the dining halls will serve Equal Exchange coffee in Autocrat machines. The coffee may not be local, but the machines are.

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July / August 2005