3) Local food feeds University of Massachusetts students, body and mind

Picking Strawberries, Czajkowski Farm

Picking Strawberries, Czajkowski Farm

Early in the morning, and for much of the day, Conway Solomon and his fellow workers at the Czajkowski Farm in Hadley, stoop over vegetable beds and pick squash. Later that evening, hundreds of students at the University of Massachusetts enjoy that very same squash picked by Solomon only hours before.

The University of Massachusetts is completely reshaping the image of cafeteria food by working closely with farmers within the area to provide healthy, local meals to its students, lower its food costs, and educate the UMass community about nutrition.

Strawberry Flower, Czajkowski Farm

Strawberry Flower, Czajkowski Farm

In the past five years, the amount of locally grown food used in the UMass dining commons has dramatically increased with the hiring of Ken Toong, the university’s director of dining and retail services. By using both local food and local specialty chefs, Toong’s message of buying local is a popular one that resonates with students who enjoy a fresh meal.

Chicken, Food Bank Farm

Chicken, Food Bank Farm

With the help of 15 local farms, Toong works hard to “make the dining commons the learning commons.” By this, Toong means that it is his personal goal to provide more than just food to the students of the university. Education about the benefits of eating local is just as important as the meal itself. He says that buying local preserves farmland, and makes students more involved.

Plums, Food Bank Farm

Plums, Food Bank Farm

Toong buys local because he says that students want something fresher. The produce served in the UMass dining commons are just that. According to Toong, broccoli picked on a local farm in the morning can easily be on the menu that very night for dinner.

Along with the food he serves, Toong also organizes weekly and biweekly events to teach students about the local food they eat. Such events include award winning guest chefs, local food specialties, and themed weeks like Sustainable Seafood Week or Apple Week.

These events are especially exciting for him because he says that he is “blessed with good chefs in the area.” While events like these are not unique to UMass, Toong explains that at most schools, they take place only about once a month.

Fresh Strawberries, Czajkowski Farm

Fresh Strawberries, Czajkowski Farm

For Ken Toong, there is an added incentive to buy local: it is cheaper.

“It’s a myth that buying local is more expensive,” he says.

He explains that by buying local, you don’t pay the middle man because there really aren’t any. The money paid goes straight to the farmers and helps support the Massachusetts economy.

To get an idea of how much cheaper local foods are, Toong compares the price of local deli meat to that of deli meat at a grocery store. He pays about two to three dollars per pound locally while Stop and Shop charges around eight to nine dollars per pound. Buying local makes all the difference.

Produce, Food Bank Farm

Produce, Food Bank Farm

Before Ken Toong was hired as Director of Food Services, UMass did not make a conscious effort to include local foods on their menu. Currently, with Toong in charge, 10 percent of all food served in the dining commons is bought from New England vendors, 23 percent of all produce is local, and all seafood options meet Seafood WATCH’s sustainable seafood guidelines.

Toong does not work alone. Luckily for him, Joe Czajkowski owns and works on a farm only two miles from campus. Czajkowski is a Community Involved In Sustainable Agriculture, or CISA, member. He helped Toong join in buying local campaigns, and he provides UMass with local produce.

Pears, Food Bank Farm

Pears, Food Bank Farm

Czajkowski works as a distributor calling local farms to round up produce in the area which he then brings to campus. In addition to UMass, he brings local produce to Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s.

Toong says that working with Czajkowski means “one stop shopping.” In order to have enough food, Joe makes deliveries to UMass about three times a week, sometimes more. These two are the primary operators behind UMass’ local food success.

As the largest institutional buyer of produce in the Pioneer Valley, UMass has a huge impact on local farming, as well as other local colleges. In the future, Toong hopes to increase the amount of local foods he buys. For this year alone he set a goal to buy 25percent of all produce locally. This means more business for local farmers and more business for Joe Czajkowski.

“In the end of the day,” says Toong, “the farmer has to feed his family.”

Oregano, Food Bank Farm

Oregano, Food Bank Farm

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