Examining Sustainability in Davidson’s Food Offerings

Julia Knoerr ‘21

Senior Staff Writer

Photo by Olivia Forrester ’22

Often a food’s journey from field to Commons tray escapes students’ daily concerns in their trek to the salad bar or grill, leading to bowls of spinach and half-eaten burgers on the tray drop.

Outlining food procurement, Dee Phillips, Director of Dining Services, and Craig Mombert, Executive Chef, noted that Vail Commons, Davis Café, and Wildcat Den share sourcing and production processes. Phillips revealed, “U.S. [Foods] is our food distributor, and they provide us with over 90% [of products].” Davidson participates in a group purchasing organization with other colleges, increasing purchasing power and maintaining cost.

Mombert creates the Commons menu and purchasing list. Beyond U.S. Foods, Davidson also receives produce lists from Foster-Caviness and Sawyer Farms, which tend to source products from the Greensboro and South Carolina areas. However, they offer limited supplies of local and organic products, and Davidson’s high volume demand presents challenges.

Similarly, geographic location also prohibits offering solely local, seasonal produce while fulfilling students’ desires for variety. Though schools in port cities or ideal weather conditions may offer greater variety, Davidson’s limited growing seasons and low regional demand for organic products often make them infeasible.

Furthermore, Phillips commented on insurance limitations, stating, “In order for us to purchase from any provider, they have to carry a minimum of $1 million of liability insurance.” Many smaller farmers cannot afford to carry necessarily large policies to address risk of foodborne illnesses.

Patterson Court Council organizations, additional food providers on campus, plan and source meals independently. Debra Thompson, Turner House’s chef, orders large quantities from U.S. Foods and relies on Walmart for produce and BJ’s Wholesale Club for other items. Approximately 50% of offerings are pre-packaged. 

Comparatively, Brendan Krebs, the chef for Rusk, Kappa Alpha Order, Sigma Phi Epsilon and Phi Gamma Delta houses, purchases products through Sysco. Seasonal produce originates within 300 miles, while many meat products are also local. Specialty items come from Harris Teeter and Whole Foods. However, Krebs finds organic products cost prohibitive.

To address limitations, students and faculty presented a number of strategies. Yancey Fouché, Director of Sustainability, discussed food hubs as an option for engaging local farmers while addressing high demand and offering larger insurance policies.

Dr. Fuji Lozada, Professor of Anthropology and Environmental Studies, weighed food hubs’ feasibility, remarking they “are more able to provide the reliability that restaurants and Vail [Commons] need because they’re bringing in multiple farms.” However, he believes they would not be economically viable. Fouché noted, “[whether] are we willing to invest in this relative to other priorities on campus is an important question.”

Adde Sharp ’20 also observed the need to adjust student and staff mindsets. Partnering with Barbee Farms, for instance, might necessitate limited supplies, but she sees such measures as better than none.

Because the term “sustainability” encompasses environmental, economic and social practices, balancing priorities can prove challenging. Labeling often appears arbitrary; for instance, the Davidson College Farm is not certified organic because of crop spacing, though it uses organic practices.

Consequently, Environmental Studies major Lexi Wombwell ’20 advocates for knowing the farmer and visiting the farm rather than potentially misleading parameters. While farm lists would allow for informed decision-making, U.S. Foods does not specify source information. 

Dietician Elizabeth Allred further indicated difficulties to increasing source labeling, as the Commons menu constantly evolves, and all labels are handwritten. Such a system might be more feasible in the Café and the Den due to their static menus.

Furthermore, economic concerns often counter environmental sustainability. Wombwell argued, “Research needs to be done on how to move away from U.S. Foods without increasing price, because food insecurity is a big problem on campus (which is why we started Lula Bell’s).”

In fact, past students have conducted relevant research. Alumna Jennifer Burns ’10 focused her thesis on a cost-benefit analysis of moving towards a more sustainable food system at Davidson. She shared, “I found that the benefits far outweighed the monetary costs.” Sustainable food systems allow universities to become thought leaders, compete against peers, support local communities, and provide healthier food for students.

Burns elaborated, “Our food system is extremely efficient, which makes for some really cheap food, but a lot of those costs aren’t actualized in the price tag.” Similarly, Lozada highlighted the industrial food system’s hidden costs that may not appear in prices.

 Attempting to act on such concerns, the Davidson College Farm serves as a platform for local sourcing. Farm Manager Theresa Allen shared that initially, “The goal of the farm was just to be a local source of food, literally replacing U.S. Food boxes on the truck.” Beyond offering Commons produce, Allen has previously partnered with Summit Coffee and Rusk House.

Yet Lozada indicated the farm’s small operating capacity has inhibited it from reliably meeting student demand. In order to grow production, Allen sees the need for increased labor.

As Allen departs Davidson this year, Sharp observed, “Having a transition time right now at the farm is going to provide us an opportunity to expand the functions…hopefully in a way that engages the Davidson community and the student community in a much more interactive way.” Sharp and other students plan to participate in an independent study next fall to further evaluate the farm. Because Davidson is one of the four Duke Endowment schools, three of whom have farms, unique opportunities for collaboration and learning have also arisen.

Sharp underscored the value of connecting students with growing practices to reduce waste and reflect on privilege. Beyond the farm, the Davidson Community Garden grows produce for the Ada Jenkins food pantry and offers volunteer opportunities. Sharp emphasized, “The salad bar at Commons is a privilege. Whether it is regional or local or ethical, even just fresh produce is a privilege.”

Awareness of food privilege directly connects with issues of food waste. Because Commons and Davis Café have scratch kitchens, Sharp noted their success in largely eliminating both pre-consumer waste and post-consumer waste through composting on certain days. Davidson’s in-house, rather than externally contracted, food services also enable more flexible sustainability practices.

In contrast, Sharp ranks PCC organizations lowest in the campus sustainability hierarchy for both food and plastic waste. Thompson similarly commented on Turner’s food waste, suggesting leftovers replace Friday lunch. While Krebs sees less waste through accurate meal counts and successful leftover consumption, he suggests donating to local food pantries.

Moreover, notable plastic waste arises in PCC organizations, Davis Café, and vending machines. Sharp recommends implementing a container system similar to Commons’ Green Box program. Houses could consistently stock reusable containers and fine individuals if not returned, thus providing convenience while reducing packaging. 

Furthermore, changes within Dining Services create room for innovation and cultural change, including through a new incoming Head of Dining Services. Kristina Johnson ’10 urges food service leaders to push U.S. Foods to provide options that reflect student values or evaluate other providers. 

Both Fouché and Sharp contemplated alternative food options on campus. Sharp offered, “Having a…food offering that serves a radically different niche…but really could prioritize more local, regional, ethical [items], as well as more dietary concerns…I think would be so well received on campus.”

Melanie McKenzie ’21 also supports academic engagement with food through courses such as her Food and Sustainability seminar last fall. Similarly, Wombwell suggested that because students have little choice over dining options, research and academic avenues are more accessible than advocacy or boycotting for change. 

Burns pushed a holistic viewpoint to instigate cultural change: “Food is so interdisciplinary, so it’s a way that we can look at everything from insects, to public health, to competing against other elite schools for the best and the brightest in the country.” To differentiate Davidson from other top liberal arts colleges, values beyond academics play a crucial role.

Past measures have included themed local lunches and a grass-fed hamburger at Davis Café; Commons will serve an Earth Month themed lunch on April 24th. Moving forward, Allen proposed bringing in more vendors during the on-campus farmers market, while Wombwell suggested incorporating new student organizations.  

Dr. Patrick Baron, Assistant Professor of Public Health, underscored, “We have a lot of important choices to make as consumers every day; I would argue none are more critical than how we eat when it comes to our own health, and the ways in which our choices impact the world around us, for better and for worse.” 

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