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Building Sustainable Sources of Fresh Produce

This article was originally published on TuftsNow.

January 15, 2019
 

Tufts, Harvard, and Boston College are coming together to support sustainable regional agriculture by investing in New England farms that can help them provide fresh, seasonable vegetables in their dining halls throughout the academic year.

The three schools, all of which operate independent dining services, outlined their collaborative model in a proposal that was recently awarded one of five New England Food Vision Prizes from the Henry P. Kendall Foundation. The prizes are part of a larger plan to achieve a goal of producing at least 50 percent of New England’s food in the region by 2060. 

The three universities will distribute the $250,000 prize money in small grants to regional farmers who want to expand their farmland or prolong the short growing season by, for example, constructing passively vented, solar-heated greenhouses. The proposal also will extend the viability for using root vegetables by developing new cold storage options.

Patricia Klos, director of Tufts Dining and Business Services, said the proposal speaks to a shared commitment to expanding inclusion of regional foods on campus menus and to  reducing carbon footprints of other food delivery systems, including those associated with processed foods and produce routinely trucked across country from California to Massachusetts.

The proposal also reinforces Tufts Dining’s efforts, going back to the 1990s, to support sustainable food services practices that accent freshness and reduce waste and energy consumption, she said.

“When it comes to stimulating sustainable solutions that will benefit our region and grow in magnitude, it really makes sense to coordinate with our colleagues,” she said. “Our core values are clearly aligned. We all support buying local.”

As part of the universities’ investment in the farms, they will commit to buying selected additional seasonal vegetables—cucumbers, peppers, beets, and onions—that are in high demand. These products are purchased in volume, but local supplies don’t always align with an academic calendar; fresh cucumbers, for example, are bountiful in summer.   

“We identified these products as four primary opportunities for starting new farm relationships,” said Crista Martin, director for strategic initiatives and communications at Harvard Dining Services and principal author of the proposal. “In other words, if a local farmer would grow cucumbers well into the winter in a greenhouse, we’d buy a ton.”

The purchasing power of the combined universities, which serve some 10 million meals every year, she added, is a powerful incentive, particularly for smaller farmers operating with slim profit margins.

“We are offering a reliable revenue stream,” she said. “Farmers can count on us to purchase their goods. Year in and year out, we will be there.”

The universities will partner with produce vendor Costa Fruit & Produce, the New Entry Sustainable Farming Project—an initiative of Tufts’ Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy that works to strengthen local food systems by supporting new farmers—and CommonWealth Kitchen for food preparation and packaging.

“It is an exciting proposal,” said Jennifer Hashley, N05, director of the New Entry Sustainable Farming Project. “We look forward to helping identify some of our beginning or immigrant farmers who have the potential to scale up from, maybe, two to five acres, or who could afford to get a tractor and lease additional land.”

She added that the project represents an important step toward figuring out a new model for food procurement that will benefit farmers of all sizes. “We need to find the leverage points that can help transform and rebuild the farming economy, and there is no better lever than the region’s largest purchasers of food.”

Supporting regional agriculture is part of Tufts Dining’s sustainability practices; all nine food service locations on the Medford/Somerville campus, plus Tufts Catering, were “green restaurant certified,” receiving three stars from the nonprofit Green Restaurant Association in 2016.  

Tufts Dining also supports a fall farmer’s market on the Medford-Somerville campus, and collaborated with Harvard in 2015 to turn 120,000 pounds of Massachusetts-grown tomatoes into 14,000 gallons of marinara sauce.

Tufts already purchases a wide range of regional produce, said Klos. Through the course of the academic year, dining halls take advantage of locally grown produce as it becomes available, including potatoes, turnips, squash, beans, alfalfa sprouts, peppers, tomatoes, eggplant, kale, cranberries, cabbage, beets, apples, pears, and peaches. 

Universities like Tufts are hardly alone in taking a growing interest in protecting and strengthening New England agriculture, which faces intense pressure from land development and competition from global food distributors with efficiencies of scale.  

Currently, 90 percent of food consumed by New Englanders comes from outside the region, a delivery system “that produces abundant food . . . but also undermines the planet’s soils, waters, and climate,” according to a collaborative report, “50 by 60: A New England Food Vision.”

Hashley agrees it is a system that takes a toll on the environment, “but what is scarier to me is the increasing reliance on regional food distribution centers, like for Amazon and Walmart, which don’t keep much inventory on the shelves. We have limited food reserves, particularly if we don’t invest in supporting year-round local and regional farm production closer to home. Whatever actions universities can take to help grow resilience and regional food security is very important.”

Laura Ferguson can be reached at laura.ferguson@tufts.edu.