Healthy Choices - by Jennifer A. Cline, writer/editor-One College Avenue.

In Pennsylvania College of Technology's dining facilities, there's little argument whether locally produced foods are better.

"When we switched to local milk, we saw an increase in our chocolate-milk sales," said Amy S. Lingg, marketing assistant for Penn College Food Services. "The two main dining units (Susquehanna Room and CC Commons) go through a combined 200 to 250 gallons of chocolate milk a week."

Buying its bulk milk products from Milky Way Farms near Troy, less than an hour's drive from the college, was one of the first broad initiatives Food Services took to serve local foods. The college began serving milk from the farm's grass-fed dairy cattle during the 2001 school year.

Similarly, when Food Services began purchasing its hamburger patties and bulk ground beef from the Northern Tier Sustainable Meats Co-Op - a group of farms that also raise grass-fed livestock less than an hour from the college - in the 2004-05 academic year, its sales of hamburgers increased 30 percent within the first several months, with no additional promotion.

Continuing its efforts to provide healthy, nutritious options to students, in 2005, Food Services partnered with Kegel's Produce, of Lancaster County, a company that prides itself in obtaining quality fruits and vegetables from Pennsylvania farmers. Similarly, the water bottled by Three Springs Water Co., of Laurel Run, and sold in Food Services' facilities, flows from natural Pennsylvania springs.

Because of those efforts, Penn College was among colleges and universities mentioned in a New York Times article in 2005 for offering menus on which 30 percent or more of the food is locally grown.

Chef Monica's Carrot Cake

Total Yield: Two 9-inch cake pans

Ingredients

  • 1 1/4 cup vegetable oil
  • 2 cups granulated sugar
  • 2 cups shredded carrots
  • 4 eggs
  • 2 teaspoons cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons soda
  • 1 cup chopped pecans
  • 2 cups flour, all purpose

Method:

Shred carrots and measure.

Mix dry ingredients together and set aside.

Mix carrots, sugar and oil together in large mixer bowl. Add eggs and blend until well combined. Let rest five minutes.

Add dry ingredients and mix just until all ingredients are blended. Pour into prepared pan(s) and bake at 350 until done, about. 45 minutes for rounds. Centers should be firm to the touch.

Cream Cheese Icing

Ingredients

  • 1 pound cream cheese
  • 4 ounces (1 stick) butter
  • 2 pounds powdered sugar
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla
  • 2-3 tablespoons cream

Method:

All ingredients must be at room temperature or they will cause lumpy icing. You must work fast if the kitchen is hot, or you will have a puddle of icing.

Cream the cheese and butter together and blend until completely smooth. Add the vanilla and powdered sugar and blend until smooth. Add enough cream to make the right spreading consistency. Use as needed. Refrigerate.

Healthy Eaters

There are several reasons the local food may taste better to students. In all cases, it's fresher because the product has not traveled as far as most shipped foods, which often journey an average of 1,500 miles. In the case of produce, local farmers can offer varieties that are bred for taste and freshness, rather than for shipping and a long shelf life. Shorter travel also means that, in addition to taste, more of the nutritional value has been retained.

"As soon as you pick any type of produce, it starts to lose its flavor and quality," explained Chef Frank M. Suchwala, instructor of hospitality management/ culinary arts. That means losing vitamins and other nutrients. "What you get in the store might be five days old."

He said it can't compare with the freshness of foods grown in your own garden or by area farmers, when the fruit or vegetable has often been picked the same day you eat it.

The School of Hospitality, like Food Services, tries to purchase local foods for its culinary arts students to prepare and serve in Le Jeune Chef Restaurant.

Suchwala said, "We deal with (Cedar Springs Trout Hatchery) in Mill Hall . If I call up today, the fish are swimming around. When they get here, they've been out of the water for only six hours."

He also talks about the fresh herbs and vegetables the school buys in season from Beech Grove Farm in nearby Beech Grove, owned by Anne and Eric Nordell. "You can tell her what you want; that day she is washing it, and you have it that afternoon."

Regarding the grass-fed meat and dairy products purchased by Food Services, Lingg said that, in addition to their freshness, they carry nutritional benefits over their "standard" counterparts. Because the cows eat only grass, hay and minerals, as opposed to high-starch grains, the farmers say grass-fed beef is leaner and has two to four times more omega-3 fatty acids than meat from grain-fed animals. The partnerships also allow Food Services to tell students its milk product comes from a farm that uses no pesticides or herbicides and is free from growth hormones, a benefit home consumers can take advantage of, as well, by getting to know their supplier.

"By buying local foods, you often know where your food is coming from," Lingg said. "Consumers have the opportunity to have a personal contact with the farmer and often know right where the farm is.

"Here is a personal example that I use when talking to students about the local products we use on campus," she said. "Our dining units purchase bulk milk, bulk beef and hamburger patties from farms in the Canton/Troy area. I can personally say, 'I know where our food comes from here on campus,' because I drive by those milk cows and beef cattle every time I travel to my parents' house. So I know where that hamburger patty comes from in the Susquehanna Room, and I have no idea where my cheeseburger comes from when I visit a fast-food restaurant."

Chef Michael J. Ditchfield, instructor of hospitality management/culinary arts, whom Suchwala credited with strengthening the bond between the college and local farmers through his association with the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture, pointed out that buying local allows both chefs and home cooks to "develop relationships with our sources of food and the people who grow it." You can find out how the farmer raises his or her crops or livestock.

"We trust these people. We know where our food comes from," Ditchfield said. "We define food security locally."

Healthy Communities

In addition to nutritional benefits, buying local helps the community as a whole.

"We keep our money in our local economy and support and help strengthen our local businesses," Ditchfield said.

Shorter travel time for food also yields a smaller environmental impact.

"One thing to consider when comparing locally produced foods and those that have been shipped is that a shipped product may have traveled 1,500 miles before it got to your table," Lingg said. "By buying local, you can help conserve fuel, reduce pollution and enjoy fresher foods."

Many smaller, local farms also use sustainable practices, meaning that they try to minimize their impact on the land for future generations.

"It's just as much about the community as it is about the food," Ditchfield said. "Healthy farms producing healthy foods for our community, with some concern and foresight for the future."

The Time is Ripe

Buying food from local farmers is not a new concept, but it is another concept that is gaining momentum, thanks to consumers who are becoming more conscious of both their family's health and the health of their communities.

"Buying local is a big trend in the industry as a whole," Lingg said. "I think as people become more conscious of their health, this is something they are interested in."

"Many consumers are demanding local products," Ditchfield agreed. "The local growers' markets are huge successes. People are willing to pay more for the value-added products."

Even higher cost is becoming less of a barrier, though, Suchwala pointed out. As fuel costs rise, prices for shipped food are approaching those of local organic foods.

"It used to cost $1 for a dozen eggs and $3 for organic eggs," Suchwala said. "Now, they're comparable. If I have to pay $3, I'd rather buy organic."

As people become more conscious of their health and of their impact on the earth, buying local allows them to support responsible practices. "We vote at the cash register," Ditchfield said. "That is one place our vote definitely counts."

Challenges

There are still challenges for all concerned, however.

For restaurants, it may be difficult to find someone in the area who can deliver on the day they need their produce and in the quantities they need, as opposed to making one call to a larger company that stocks food products from around the country and can ship them readily.

"It's harder to do the right thing, and that's where a lot of people get caught up," Suchwala said. But, as chef-instructors in the School of Hospitality tell their students, going out of their way to offer better quality to their customers is what will make them stand out.

Ditchfield said while people are more conscious of the benefits of buying local, small farmers who try to sell their products locally still face challenges in the form of competition.

"It is difficult for the small, local farmers to compete with the large, fullline purveyors," Ditchfield said. "When things get tough - like they're getting now - many food-service operations simply cannot afford the additional costs for value-added foods. Many restaurants try to support local agriculture by at least purchasing some of their foods from local sources, but very few have made the commitment to shop 100-percent local."

Restaurants - especially in the North - are also challenged by the seasons, because while consumers may be willing to eat canned fruits and vegetables at home during winter, they want fresh produce when they visit a restaurant, which means restaurants have to order tomatoes and other products from warmer climates.

The School of Hospitality, too, must maintain a budget, including in Le Jeune Chef, which operates to give students practice serving real-world customers, rather than to earn a profit. It spends around 10 percent locally, Ditchfield estimated.

It buys dairy products from Milky Way Farms near Troy; pork from Cowa- Hen Farm, Mifflinburg; lamb from Misty Mountain Farm, Trout Run, and Jamison Lamb, Latrobe; produce from Beech Grove Farm, Beech Grove; elk and venison from Brioncrest Elk Farm, Liberty; and several other products it buys less frequently from other local farms.

"We have an account at Wegmans, who does support local products," Ditchfield added.

In addition to buying local products when it can, Ditchfield said the School of Hospitality also supports local food iniatitives in other ways: The Catering class cooks samples every year at the Williamsport Growers Market, the Regional American Cuisine class hosts a local foods/market basket dinner each fall in the restaurant, the college hosted a successful farmer-chef networking event in March, and it hosted the Pennsylvania Statewide Project Grass Conference in 2006 for those producing or selling grassfed products.

"Basically, for me, it's about healthy choices," Ditchfield said. "I would like to see more local, healthier food choices in our schools, not so much for me, but for my granddaughters. Kids would make healthy choices, but how many do we give them? A good friend of mine and the president of the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture said something once that really rings true: We need to produce 'food fit for a kid.' It's all about our kids. They are our greatest resource."

Pennsylvania College of Technology
One College Avenue
Williamsport, PA 17701

570-326-3761
800-367-9222

© 1995 Pennsylvania College of Technology. Penn College® and degrees that work® are registered in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.