Sautéed swiss chard, tender braised short rib, and Cougar Gold polenta. Tuscan grilled chicken with seasonal heirloom tomatoes, artichoke hearts, lentils, capers, and fresh herbs. Bacon seared Caesar salad with tomato jam toast and avocado Caesar dressing. These are dishes one would expect to find at a fine-dining restaurant, not a dining center at Washington State University.
Your memories of eating campus food, wherever you went to college, might consist of standing in long cafeteria lines where servers plopped their latest mystery food creation on your plate. It’s a totally different and much better experience than many of us remember.
Not only do the dining centers look different with modern designs where you can watch your food being freshly prepared, but the food is of much better quality. In fact about 20 percent is locally grown. The availability of fresh ingredients grown by local farmers, most of them alumni, has inspired Dining Services’ team of chefs to unleash their creative talents.
WSU junior Maxx Waring expected an ordinary daily lunch visit to the Hillside Dining Center last spring when something new caught his attention. At the first serving counter, a dining center employee sliced a thick and juicy chunk of roasted pork. Waring couldn’t pass it up. Finding a table with his friend Julia Carter, they both savored their first bite of the pork.
“This is really good!” exclaimed Waring and Carter. The students not only raved about the taste; they were also impressed the pork and vegetables they were eating came from farms near Pullman.
As part of a new Dining Services program called Farm to Fork, students like Waring and Carter in all three of the WSU Pullman’s dining centers sample specialty dishes made with local ingredients, as well as meet the farmers who produced them.
Pat Allan ’78 from Allan Family Farm invited students to hold baby chicks. His farm is located just four miles east of campus.
“Seeing farmers in their dining center isn’t something students expect when they arrive,” Allan says. “I thought bringing these chicks would help break the ice and encourage them to ask questions.”
Joining Allan were Keri Wilson ’96 from Wilson Banner Ranch in Clarkston and Jason Parsley ’14 from Omache Farm, located south of Pullman. Dining Services purchases various items by season, including pork, pork sausage, and green onions from Omache Farms; eggs, strawberries, huckleberries, and buckwheat honey from Wilson Banner Ranch; and eggs, chicken, and apricot jam from the Allan Family Farm.
Offering students local fare is a national trend at colleges and universities, according to Sarah Larson ’87, associate director of Dining Services. “We know from surveying students that they strongly value sustainability and local food sourcing,” says Larson. “Students are the ones driving this trend across the nation, and here as well.”
Dining Services defines local food as items that are manufactured, processed, or grown within 350 miles of Pullman. While that encompasses a relatively large area, much of WSU’s locally sourced food currently comes from nearby farms owned by alumni.
“As an alum myself, I’m very pleased we’ve been able to develop a good relationship with these farmers,” says Larson.
Wilson Banner Ranch has been in business for 125 years and has a long history of providing food to WSU and the Palouse region. Wilson remembers stories of her great-grandfather picking crops such as peaches and tomatoes, often shipping boxes of them to Pullman from the Clarkston Valley by train. But as Washington State College grew, it became easier and more economical for Dining Services to purchase food from large wholesale companies, instead of individual farms. The same thing was happening at colleges and universities all over the country.
“It was a big change for our farm and it changed the way we did business,” says Wilson, whose farm is known for its apple cider and sweet corn. For family-owned farms, farmers markets helped fill the void.
It was at the Moscow Farmers Market a couple of summers ago when Dining Services Chef Corey King met Parsley, Wilson, and Allan selling their crops. He told the farmers Dining Services wanted to strengthen its relationship with them and purchase more of their crops.
While Dining Services has been forging connections with farmers around the Palouse, one only has to walk 20 minutes from the center of campus to find freshly grown produce. On a warm and windy June day, Brad Jaeckel and his crew were busy harvesting carrots, radishes, and garlic scapes on the WSU Eggert Family Organic Farm, on 30 acres of land east of the main campus.
Inside one of the hoop houses, he knelt down to take a close look at the lush tomato plants bursting with yellow blooms. He recounted how those same plants got off to a rough start just a couple of months earlier.
After April’s last killing frost, Jaeckel sensed the growing season would arrive early last year. Rolling the dice, he and his team planted tomatoes in the hoop houses several weeks ahead of schedule. “They almost died,” he says with a grin. “Now we’re taking bets on how quick we’ll get ripe tomatoes.”
The Eggert Farm has provided food for Dining Services off and on for the past 12 years. With the farm located less than a mile away from central campus, Dining Services wants to increase the amount and variety of fresh produce it can purchase there.
Jaeckel says providing food to Dining Services fits well with the farm’s mission. “Not only are we offering quality food for students to enjoy, we are providing them with educational and research opportunities.”
During Dining Service’s Farm to Fork events and other times, Wilson and her fellow farmers conduct their own informal research on student attitudes towards locally grown food. What they are discovering is the majority of WSU students care about where their food comes from. Nearly all students surveyed said they prefer freshly grown fruits and vegetables over processed or canned goods. Many also want their meat and eggs to come from animals that have been humanely raised, some indicating they are willing to pay up to 20 percent more for it.
Wilson says there’s no doubt in her mind the demand for fresher food will continue to rise among students, and she is convinced WSU is primed to make a big splash in the area of food sustainability.
“With its land-grant heritage, state-of-the art kitchens and great chefs, its food engineering lab, a dairy, an organic farm, and many brilliant people in place, WSU can become a shining star in the university system,” Wilson says. “And the farmers are willing to do our part to help make that happen.”