The braised short ribs and mashed Yukon Gold potatoes in American University's Terrace dining room last Thursday were definite hits. So were the roasted beets, the baby fennel and wild mushroom gratin, and, from the salad bar, the organic arugula and the red, orange and yellow cherry and globe tomatoes.
Does that sound like the cafeteria food at your school? Probably not. That's because these dishes were part of a special meal created by chef William Goldman to take advantage of fresh local products that abound at this time of year. Every item on his menu that day was grown, raised or produced within a 150-mile radius of the school.
The beef and beets came from Washington, Va., and White Hall, Md.; the apples, field greens, squash, potatoes and assorted herbs from Maddensville, Pa.; the heirloom tomatoes, apples and fresh cider from Harrisonburg, Va.; and the red wine for braising the beef from vineyards in Sparks, Md.
To regulars, it made a difference -- and provided a welcome diversion from the controversy over AU President Benjamin Ladner's spending. "The salad bar is awesome today," said B.J. Soto, a staff counselor for international students and a vegetarian who eats there regularly. Joe Vidulich, a 19-year-old sophomore in the School of Public Affairs and a self-described carnivore, thought so, too. "It looks more like a home-cooked meal," he said.
"Seasonal" and "local" are the watchwords of the food world today. Consumers are learning to buy produce from nearby sources to get freshness and flavor. Locally grown fruits and vegetables are more likely to be recently harvested, and buying close to home appeals to the environmentally conscious because it uses fewer resources for transportation.
These days, any restaurant that wants to be taken seriously pays attention to the fresh and seasonal mantra.
That's a realistic goal in the world of fine dining, where chefs can have ongoing arrangements with the area's local farmers. But it's harder to manage at the large-scale food halls and cafeterias at universities and colleges. Locally grown food tends to be sold in smaller units than food service companies are used to and they are often more expensive. "The food costs [were] higher than normal," said Goldman, who estimated that some foods, like the short ribs, might cost up to twice as much as they would from the regular wholesale outlets.
And if the farmers who sell those local products aren't part of a regular delivery system, the foods are sometimes harder to find. "We knew about some local meats and local creameries, but certain things we had to search for," Goldman said.
To make the effort worthwhile for the food service provider, students have to value fresh local food. If the growing number of activist student groups all over the country that want their schools to serve locally grown foods is any indication, many of them already do.
Bon Appetit, a food service management company that stresses dishes prepared from scratch with fresh ingredients, runs the AU dining room. Last Thursday's special menu was part of the "Eat Local Challenge," a nationwide effort by the company to promote that kind of eating. Also participating in the effort were all 190 cafes in 26 states run by Bon Appetit. Locally, the Georgetown University Law Center, Gallaudet University, Goucher College, St. Mary's College and Oracle Corp. were among the participants.
Many schools are acutely aware of exactly how students feel about the food. "They come to me when they're happy or unhappy, or want something different," said Julie Weber, AU's executive director of housing and dining programs. And that's in everyone's interests. If the school's food isn't good, fewer students will buy meal plans, which are often mandatory for freshmen but not for other students.
At many schools, including AU, students are included on food and dining committees set up by the school to discuss such issues as students' taste preferences and dietary requirements.
Two years ago, a student delegation told Weber and the food committee that some students wanted vegetarian and vegan offerings. Now a food station that serves only those foods is one of the most popular in the dining room. "It's more expensive, but it's a great leap forward," Weber said.
Last week, signs promoting the local food challenge were posted all over the AU campus. (Competition came from fast-food-like operations on the campus that were open during last Thursday's meal, as were other dining room stations serving pizza, grilled foods, Mexican dishes and desserts.) Faculty members and staff -- many of them regular dining room customers -- seemed aware of the local food challenge event, but many students hadn't paid attention until they got to the dining room.
Like Jesse Phillips, a 19-year-old sophomore studying business. "I think it's a cool idea," he said, "but I didn't come here because of that. I really like the food. But to be honest, most people get tired of it."
Charae Carter, a 20-year-old junior majoring in law and society, didn't come for local food either. Her basic dining room preferences are cereal, pasta, grilled chicken and ice cream. But after surveying the salad bar, she noticed that the lettuce looked greener and the cherry tomatoes brighter. The red bell pepper slices were an innovation. She still wasn't tempted. "I've had carrots here that tasted like pesticide," she said.
She checked out the hot dishes on the special menu, too, and asked for the short ribs and potatoes, but only small portions. Why? She had to save room for her cereal and grilled chicken.