Tracing food from Yale's dining tables to its roots: Students tour local farms

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During the farm tours, students have the opportunity to harvest local crops themselves — in this case, apples. (Photos by Rick Adams/FreshPoint)

Boarding a bus at 8:30 a.m. on a sunny Saturday morning might not be the way most college students would prefer to start their weekend. But it was no problem for the Yale undergraduates who were curious about the source of their dining hall produce.

In the past four years, Yale Dining has hosted tours of area farms — suppliers of fruits and vegetables served in the dining halls — to introduce undergraduates to the source of some their food and the people who grow it. For four weekends in September and October, Yale Dining charters buses to transport 90 students each tour through some of Connecticut’s growing areas and farms.

During the year’s last tour on Oct. 6, Gerry Remer, director of supply chain and sustainability for Yale Dining, took the group first to Rose’s Berry Farm in Glastonbury, then to Blue Hills Farm in Wallingford. The students were treated to Rose’s breakfast brunch, which included an array of fresh fruit, French toast, pancakes, bacon, and frittatas — the same menu as Rose’s Sunday brunch which is open to the public in the fall. The students were joined by Dan Batchelder, sales manager of Freshpoint, the tour sponsor, and Sandy Rose, owner of Rose’s Berry Farm. FreshPoint is a distributor that aggregates local produce from local farms and supplies them to Yale Dining.

“Yale Dining serves 14,000 meals a week; in a recent week this included 15,000 apples,” Remer told the group. “We wanted to share where some of the fruits and vegetables come from. We are able to work with these farms because of our relationship with the people at FreshPoint who can consolidate produce from many growers and deliver to all our sites. Because of the volume of produce we use in Yale dining halls, this is more efficient than working directly with the farmers. When we’re in the growing season, up to 50% of our produce comes locally from Connecticut within a 90-mile radius.”

During the growing season, up to 50% of the produce served in Yale’s dining halls comes from Connecticut arms within a 90-mile radius.

“How many of you have never been on a farm?” Batchelder asked the students on the tour. Not a single student raised a hand.

“When we first started this tour,” he said, “probably 20% of the students raised their hands and had never been on a farm. We’re making some progress!”

Rose told the group about some of the difficulties that small farms face. This past year, conditions such as a warm winter, late frost, summer drought, and late rain proved harsh on her crops, she said, noting she lost 50% of her apples in the previous month. Agritourism has become an important supplement to her farm’s budget, noted Rose. She appealed to the students — noting that they will become tomorrow’s lawyers, politicians and scientists — to “remember this day” and the challenges farmers face, such as labor and immigration issues. “I can’t pick up my farm and move to Mexico or outsource to China,” she said. “My business is where my land is.”

After a hayride, the students had the opportunity to pick their own sugar pumpkins. On other tours, students have picked apples, raspberries, butternut squash, and heirloom and cherry tomatoes. Tour groups have also visited Cecarelli Farms in Northford, High Hill Orchards in Meriden, and Horton Farm in Glastonbury.

Students enjoy a hayride during their tour.

Batchelder, who also hosts tours for other universities, observed that “people are getting out there and seeing the farms. The program is working. The trend in general over the last few years is that more and more people are getting out to the farm markets. There has been a 40% increase in local food sales.”

Remer has been participating in these tours for four years now. “Our students have a terrific time and get to learn much more about where their food comes from and how Connecticut growers meet the challenges of agriculture in this climate. This past week we toured a cold-storage facility at Blue Hills that allows the grower to keep apples he is picking now crisp and ready to eat all throughout the New England winter.” 

Yale Dining project manager Pedro Tello notes that this is one of many projects that the department hosts to engage students beyond the dining tables. “In addition to the farm tours, we also have what is called ‘Shake the Hands that Feed You!’ which is scheduled for Oct. 16 and takes place in the residential dining halls during dinner.  Every residential dining hall hosts one or two farmers from the many local farms from which we purchase produce, dairy, etc. The purpose behind this is to allow students to meet the farmers, ask questions about their food, where it comes from, how it’s grown, etc.  In a way, it is similar to the farm tours, as it provides an opportunity for students to have a conversation with Connecticut farmers.”   

According Tello, some of the produce from these farm tours will also be featured at the Fall Harvest on Friday, Oct. 12, noon–1:30 p.m. at Beinecke Plaza. Yale Dining will also sell apple cider, candy apples, broccoli, mums, eggplant, pumpkins, and the department’s own pies and baked goods.

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