By Christopher Thrall –
Before September 2008, the cafeteria at the University of Alberta’s Augustana Campus in Camrose was supplied almost entirely by large food wholesale companies. Augustana Campus of the University of Alberta chooses a topical, interdisciplinary academic theme each year. For 2008/09, the selection committee made food – “From Field to Fork” – its theme. When Dean Roger Epp approached the Manager of Food Services, Lilas Bielopotocky, to ask if they could deliver a dinner made of locally-produced food once a month, she knew it would be a challenge.
For Dean Epp, this was too good an opportunity to miss: academic and operational sides of the campus could work together. It also matched his own research interests in rural communities and food security. The Dean came down to the kitchen to share his vision for introducing more locally- and regionally-sourced food; Lilas’ staff grew excited about the idea.
“At that time,” recalls Lilas, “I would make one phone call and everything we needed was delivered to our back door.” Unlike most institutions, Augustana runs its own cafeteria, where most meals are still made from scratch. In order to source what she needed locally, it meant a lot more effort from everyone. She would have to find producers that could supply enough food for upwards of 400 people. Her staff would face more preparation and cooking time.
“While Augustana might be located in an agricultural region, that doesn’t necessarily mean that our students are more knowledgeable about their food,” says Dean Epp. “But a university cafeteria should understand its responsibility to students and the local farm economy – call it leverage – that comes with feeding feeds more than 400 residence students, three times a day.”
As expected, year one was a learning year, especially in building a network of suppliers. “What made it possible was our very skilled staff,” Epp says.
“For that first supper, I needed 180 pounds of potatoes,” says Lilas. “I needed 180 pounds of roast beef and 150 pounds of carrots.” Since she herself is from the rural Camrose area, she started phoning friends and acquaintances, and Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development staff helped put her in touch with local suppliers. She even led her staff out to pull beets and rhubarb for the event. It took them some time and a lot of chaos in the kitchen, but they ended up delivering a roast beef dinner with mashed potatoes, gravy and salad. In return, Lilas’ team received a standing ovation from the students, faculty, staff and producers in attendance.
Lilas kept making contacts among local producers in order to supply the monthly local feature meals. She varied the menu and kept receiving excellent feedback. She started introducing local products to the regular cafeteria menu. Since then, Augustana Food Services has moved to consciously sourcing more than half of its food – and most of its meat, eggs, root vegetables and flour – from local suppliers.
“It is very difficult to find a single producer who can provide enough quantity for Augustana,” says Lilas. “The food has to be high enough quality and any processing facility has to be government-inspected.” Lilas makes a lot more phone calls to place orders or follow up, and meets producers all day long in the receiving area to ensure products are put away promptly. Surprisingly, however, her costs have not changed much. “I have a budget of about $420,000,” she says. “I save money on the eggs and the produce is about the same as I used to pay. The beef is a little more expensive. It all works out, though, which is why we are able to keep doing it.”
Lilas, Dean Epp and agricultural consultant/Augustana graduate Brian Rozmahel were invited to speak at the Growing Local Food Security Conference held at the University of Winnipeg this February. They outlined the campus food policy, developed in the past year, and the steps that Augustana campus is taking in a “farm-to-cafeteria” session aimed at farmers and institutions.
“This is not a fad for us,” Epp says. “This is about doing our part to shape a more balanced, less vulnerable food system as well as a more demanding food culture, one year’s students at a time. We want the changes we make today to have a real impact on the future: on the future of agriculture, and on our communities.”
As Lilas plans to increase local purchasing, she can count on buy-in from her staff. She is also aware of the challenges: the food safety challenges that must be met, the time it takes to do things differently, the supply base that must be expanded over time. But the effort is worth it.
“It is a huge responsibility to look after other peoples’ children,” she says. “I take it very seriously, and try to serve a meat-and-potatoes, home-cooked meal two to three times a week. I feel good about what we’re doing, and I catch myself sometimes saying, ‘Wow, that plate looks good!’”
The Facts about our Food:
• 90 kg ground beef per week, Double Z Farms (Strome)
• 45 kg stewing meat per week, Double Z Farms (Strome)
• 100 pork chops per week, Heisler Meats (Heisler)
• 50 kg flour per week, Sunny Boy Flour (Camrose)
• 2160 eggs per week, Viking Hutterite Colony (Viking)
• 68 kg carrots per week, Viking Hutterite Colony (Viking)
• 68 kg onions per week, Viking Hutterite Colony (Viking)
• 135 kg peeled potatoes per week, Viking Hutterite Colony (Viking)
• 150 hamburgers and 68 kg of roast beef, Thygesen Farms (Camrose)
• 11 kg mushrooms per week, Prairie Mushrooms (Edmonton)
• 5 kg bean sprouts per week, Yat Sun Food Products (Edmonton)
• 12 kg saskatoons per week, Berry Ridge Farms (Edmonton)
• 10 kg quick barley per week, Progressive Foods (Edmonton)
There are 13 full-time staff in the Food Services department from September to April, plus up to 27 students who put in a few hours a week in dishwashing and cashier duties.
Augustana keeps about a week’s worth of produce and two weeks’ worth of frozen meat on hand during the school year. The freezer is about the size of a small bedroom, and the cooler is about the size of a large den. Both are packed to the rafters.
As a sustainability initiative last year, the Augustana cafeteria went trayless. Not only has the cafeteria seen a reduction in the amount of food waste, but the elimination of a half-gallon of wash water for 350 trays, three times a day, has resulted in significantly less water use. The cafeteria has eliminated disposable dishes and focuses on recyclable packaging in their purchasing decisions.