At Bon Appétit, we take a lot of pride in our Farm to Fork program. Since 1999, Bon Appétit has required chefs to source 20% or more of their ingredients from small, owner-operated farms within 150 miles of their kitchens. The goal here is not only food that’s bursting with flavor — which comes from the freshest, seasonal produce — but also to support our local communities.
The Bon Appétit team at Washington University in St. Louis has been grappling with how to do so more effectively. Many of our education accounts are small liberal arts colleges, with just a couple thousand students on the campus. Wash U, meanwhile, has more than 6,000 students — and that’s just undergraduates! With so many mouths to feed, working with smaller farms can be challenging.
To give you a sense of scale, in four hours at just one WashU salad bar, students will consume approximately 40 pounds of sliced cucumbers, 40 pounds of cherry tomatoes, 20 pounds of green beans, 20 pounds of cauliflower, 24 pounds of assorted greens, and 40 pounds of romaine lettuce. Now multiply that by two more meal periods, and several more salad bars (there are four major dining halls on Wash U’s campus plus 11 other small cafés) and you can begin to see how much produce the Wash U chefs need.
The Wash U team has successfully built relationships with a number of farms in the area. All are owner-operated, and all though they’re small when compared to a typical agribusiness (from which most vegetables in the U.S. come), they’re pretty large when compared to those that sell at Midwestern farmers’ markets.
David Murphy, director of operations, and Jill Duncan, marketing manager, wanted to find a way to connect with more of these smaller family farms, and figure out a way to work with them, given the university’s need for large volume. And I offered to help them.
We invited around 35 small farmers from Illinois and Missouri (all within 150 miles of the WashU campus) to join us for a lunch and discussion. They grew everything from flour, eggs, and produce to aquaponic tomatoes and tilapia. They were full of questions:
Are you so big that we have to sell through a distributor, or can we work directly with your chefs? Either is fine with us.
How much flexibility is there in your pricing? It varies from farm to farm and product to product.
Do you have any organic requirements? No, we prioritize local.
To kick off the discussion, we also invited Clair Rudolf of Double Star Farms to talk about his experience working with us (as he did in a video for this blog). Clair has been participating in a program piloted by the Wash U team last fall, called, “Guaranteed Cash, Guaranteed Crop.” The goal of the program is to build lasting relationships that will translate into the farms’ having a consistent, reliable buyer, and our cafés a consistent supply of fresh, in-season products. Clair spoke candidly: he said up front that
the farmers around him should not expect to get “farmers’ market prices” when working with Bon Appétit at Wash U — but that the volume they will sell helps offset that difference. “I can’t get them enough tomatoes, they always want more!” he said. It was easy for him and some of the farmers he worked with to add a few rows of crops they were already growing and dedicate them to Wash U, he pointed out, without a significant cost or labor increase. That, along with being guaranteed a certain income at the beginning of the season, made the relationship a worthwhile one for him, and he encouraged the other farmers to explore the possibility.
For the luncheon, Chef De Cuisine David Rushing and Café Manager Amy Zupanci prepared a beautiful, Farm to Fork-laden-feast. They served a Missouri Spring Salad featuring Double Star Farms Cucumbers and Chupp Family Farm Eggs; a date-stuffed roasted Berkshire pork loin from Rain Crow Ranch; and my personal favorite, grits. Yes, I said grits. I am not generally a fan of this southern staple, but the combination of Weisenberger Mills old fashioned stone ground grits, Ozark Forest mushrooms, and house-smoked Missouri Berkshire bacon was nothing less than mouthwatering. I got thirds.
To top off the meal was a mixed fruit cobbler featuring Echo Valley orchard apples and Sager Farms cherries. Everyone left with full tummies and smiles on their faces. This meeting was the first of what we hope will become an annual tradition at Wash U. We’re looking forward to continue to expand our relationships with the local farming community!