Less than 85 miles from Foggy Bottom, Robert Arnold’s farm grows crops like sweet corn, cauliflower and squash for supermarket shelves and local food establishments – including J Street.
About 20 percent of produce in GW’s dining halls comes from farms within a seven-hour drive of D.C., like Arnold Farms, where workers chop down corn stalks and pick vegetables by hand for three-quarters of the year.
As few as two hours after harvest, pallets of produce from Arnold’s 360-acre farm reach the Landover, Md. warehouse of GW’s supplier, Keany Produce Company, where crates of collard greens from Virginia sit feet away from Florida grapefruit and ripening Mexican avocados. It is one of the largest produce, milk and cheese packagers along the East Coast.
Facing increased competition from campus businesses that emphasize local ingredients as part of their brand, the University has tasked this year’s new marketing team to also push that angle by highlighting decades-long ties with nearby farmers.
Nancy Haaga, head of GW dining, said she wants students to know they can find fresh and sustainable food at J Street, in hopes of pulling in customers who might otherwise go to Whole Foods or Sweetgreen, which also get some of their produce from Keany.
“Students care about where their food comes from,” Haaga, who has run campus dining for 19 years, said. “Campus dining has been purchasing food locally for as long as we’ve been operating here, but it’s not something that we’ve actively marketed. That’s something we’re going to put more of an emphasis on.”
Haaga and new marketing director Sarah Stevenson will label where J Street produce was grown, and by next year, the dining hall will include a map of local farms that supply produce to GW. Haaga said they want to increase the amount of locally grown produce “as much as possible.”
Keany sales manager Roy Cargiulo said other institutions Keany supplies through the dining service Sodexo, like George Mason and Marymount universities, also sell close to 20 percent locally grown food, although GW has a “slightly higher percentage.”
GW picks its items from Keany’s online inventory, which lists prices and the farm where it was grown. The warehouse’s inventory, which is about 25 percent locally grown, turns over every three days. About 5 percent of the produce is organic, about double its offerings two years ago.
The market for local
More and more buyers are looking to expand their local food options, the Keany sales manager said, prompting the distributor to connect with more farmers.
“The universities want to see a local bonanza,” Cargiulo said. “It’s become a buzzword.”
But he said although colleges are increasingly looking to use locally grown food, but many dining officials don’t realize they have fewer options year-round.
Because the Northeast growing season peaks in the summer, when students are not at school, GW will have to make adjustments to sell local produce. J Street’s head chef Michael Lowe is creating a special menu to incorporate off-season produce like kale, swiss chard, cauliflower, cabbage and squash.
“Seasonality is certainly something that plays into this,” Haaga said. “We’re not in California in the Valley and we don’t have access to fresh produce all year round.”
But the local farming trend, which Arnold said began about five years ago, is already fading as businesses realize the process is more complicated than they planned, he said.
At Harvard University, which pledged to go local in 2008, dining halls sell between 35 and 70 percent local foods, depending on the season. But Cargiulo said Harvard has had a hard time sustaining its commitment and has had to rely on canned vegetables like tomatoes, which were still in high demand during the winter months.
“The beginning of the local season is when [college buyers] are not around at all. Part of it is marketing – getting the word out there,” Cargiulo said. “It is going to change how the school prepares food. It will be different – using types of greens that people aren’t as accustomed to.”
Farmers in the region also face a volatile growing season. A few days of heavy rain or high himidity could ripe out Arnold’s crop, on a mid-sized Maryland farm, in just a few days.
Those conditions make it easier to buy from industrial farms in areas where weather patterns are regular, like in California, Arnold Farms office manager Margaret Frothingham said.
“You have to be dedicated to local. It’s not as easy to buy,” Frothingham said. She added that many local farms hope big businesses like GW do sign onto the local farming idea. Competition becomes tough when farms sell similar products.
“The problem is, we’re all growing cabbage,” Frothingham added. “We’re all fighting for sales. We’re all growing the same thing at the same time.”
An eye on sustainability
University President Steven Knapp, who lived on a sustainable farm in Sparks, Md., has pushed GW to become a more green institution since he came to Foggy Bottom in 2007. The focus on local food stems from GW’s ongoing sustability efforts and the large-scale Ecosystems Enhancement Strategy launched this month.
The green plan outlines goals to purchase more food from local sources and add farms and gardens on rooftops or the Mount Vernon and Virginia Science and Technology campuses over the next decade.
GW will also release a green catering guide for departments and groups Nov. 20 to advertise compostable plates and utensils and locally grown food.
“It would help us understand where the food is coming from and the resources that go into the food that we get,” Director of the Office of Sustainability Meghan Chapple-Brown said.