Bon Appétit at Cornell College Team Offers a Model for Community Engagement
- by Peter Todaro
To outsiders, small Midwestern college towns may seem sleepy, or even staid. But we know that sentiment is far from the truth. In reality, the vibrancy of a small town is in its people, and the relationships that bind them together. In such towns across the Midwest, Bon Appétit teams have used their positions as the dining services provider at colleges and universities to have a huge impact, bringing schools, local farmers, and communities closer together and contributing to long-lasting relationships.
At Cornell College in Mount Vernon, Iowa, amid some of the country’s most beautiful farmland, the Bon Appétit team has been putting our values into practice. Led by General Manager David Smigo and Executive Chef Jay Schworn, the team goes beyond simply serving students, faculty, and staff delicious from-scratch food each day, to serving as true contributors to the community.
The Bon Appétit team’s recipe for community involvement is surprisingly simple: keep an open door for anyone, either at Cornell or in Mount Vernon who wants to collaborate. One of the foundational partnerships that resulted from this approach is with the Mount Vernon-Lisbon Community Development Group (CDG), which brings business and non-profit leaders together to develop Mount Vernon’s Main Street, as well as the broader area’s economy. David and the Bon Appétit team began hosting quarterly community breakfasts for the CDG in the dining hall, gatherings which offer an opportunity for Cornell’s President Jonathan Brand, and administrators to connect with local leaders.
But hosting on-campus breakfasts barely scratches the surface.
The Bon Appétit team has developed an annual Fall Harvest Festival in partnership with folks in the community, hosting live music, games, a farmers’ market, and a community baking competition. They also sponsor and facilitate Mount Vernon’s Chili Cook-off, providing sanitation supplies, bringing food for volunteers, and coordinating with Cornell student athletes to set up and tear down the event.
The team’s visibility in the community, and reputation for great food led Mount Vernon High School’s football and basketball coaching staff to request catered meals for their teams each week during their seasons. This new connection became even more exciting this year, when the football team made states.
Supporting the community extends beyond events and sports teams, to sourcing from 10 small, local farmers, including Donna Warhover of Morning Glory Farm, whose diversified vegetable plots are less than a mile up the road from campus. The farm boasts an events space, making it the perfect catering venue for Bon Appétit, which hosts both community and campus events against the backdrop of Iowa’s rolling hills.
The collaborative approach and fantastic food have not gone unnoticed.
In 2020, Cornell presented David and the team with the college’s Purple Rock award for their service of the campus and broader community, in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. And over the summer, President Brand commented on his school’s close connection to Bon Appétit: “I know that our Bon Appétit employees are not Cornell employees. And, yet, I feel ownership and some responsibility for them too. They are a part of our team and our school. That is a great feeling.”
David, Jay, and the team’s initial collaborations have led to a cascade of connections that shows no sign of stopping. For the team, continuing to foster these strong connections is what building community truly means.