Food is finest from Tennessee

McClurg employees serving fresh salads at the salad bar. Photo courtesy of sewanee.edu.

By Vanessa Moss
Executive Staff

Looking out from Green’s View, the agricultural nature of this region is unquestionable. The plateau slinks away into a patchwork of greens: some dotted with the black forms of cattle, others dark with soy fields or pale from patches of corn.

As colleges across the nation work to prioritize local food sources, Sewanee is uniquely positioned to contribute to the region’s agrarian economy and culture.

“By supporting local farmers today, you are helping to ensure that there will be farms in your community tomorrow,” said Director of Sewanee Dining, Chef Rick Wright. “That is a matter of importance for food security, especially in light of an uncertain energy future and our current reliance on fossil fuels to produce, package, distribute and store food.”

Depending on the season, Sewanee Dining buys produce from 10 to 30 growers for McClurg Dining Hall and Stirling’s Coffee House, with 22 percent of all perishable food coming from local farmers.

In the fall, McClurg sources its apples from Wheeler’s Orchard and Vineyard in Dunlap, TN; eggs come year-round from either Brown’s Holler Farm in Tracy City or a Mennanite family farm––Nature’s Wealth––based in Skymont. From beef to milk to vegetables to granola, Sewanee Dining looks for sources close to home.

Local food is delivered to the dining hall every Tuesday and Friday, with all produce fresh-picked and packaged the day before. Without cross-country transport or warehouse storage time, the nutritional value of Sewanee Dining’s local produce is higher and carbon footprint is lower.

“Ordering local is so different, you can’t just press go and expect it to get here tomorrow,” explained Chef Caroline Thompson, director of the Sewanee Food Literacy Project. “There’s much more back and forth, which is sometimes difficult for people to understand.”

When Julia Stubblebine, director of Stirling’s Coffee House, wanted to create a breakfast sandwich that highlighted entirely regional produce, Thompson and Stubblebine had to work for a month to coordinate a new style of meat processing for Cove Creek Farm’s sausages and adjust Brown’s Holler weekly egg order.

Compared to other institutions, Sewanee Dining is relatively small. But size is an advantage; smallness affords flexibility in incorporating seasonal produce as the McClurg menu runs through its six-week cycle.

After transitioning from Aramark dining to a self-operated cooking system in 2013, McClurg has been cooking more meals from scratch. It’s more labor-intensive, demands more training for staff, and creates more compost waste. But chefs get to exercise creativity, learn how to work with new produce according to what’s in-season, and the University Farm is able to subsume 800 pounds of food waste per week in its compost system.

While colleges like Boston University and Duke University are accredited with being leaders in sustainable dining, Sewanee is not far behind. Duke spends 25 percent of its dining budget on locally sourced items–Sewanee is at 22 percent–and Boston University touts that 22 percent of all its food comes from sustainable sources, a statistic that Sewanee matches.

Wright and Thompson’s names aren’t yet up in lights for Sewanee’s increasingly sustainable dining program, but Thompson emphasizes that this work is value-driven, it’s not about money or media.

“Especially through the Food Literacy Program, we’re trying to create informed eaters,” Thompson said. With a vested interest in the local food economy, Sewanee Dining is able to support small diverse farms year-round. 

“We want people to think about what’s on their plate and how it may affect their own bodies, how it affects the workers who grew what’s on their plate, and the land it was grown on. We want people to think about how what you eat holds power.”

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