Monday, April 29, 2002

Ohio University program promotes locally grown food

Enquirer staff and news services

        ATHENS, Ohio — Ohio University said it plans to keep expanding an initiative to buy more food locally.

        The farm-to-college program started last year with two farmers and has expanded to include four producers of produce and meat, said Randy Shelton, the university's director of housing and food services.

        He said that in four or five years, the university could buy as much as 10 percent of its fresh food locally and keep about $500,000 in the southeast Ohio economy.

        “We're getting higher quality, fresher and better-tasting food; we've kept dollars in our community and we've created sustainable income for a local farming business,” Shelton said.

        Shelton said he brought the idea for the program with him from Georgetown College, near Lexington, Ky., where he helped farmers wean themselves from the tobacco industry.

        At Ohio University, convenience stores attached to university dining halls carry locally processed foods such as Casa Nueva salsa and Cajun Devil peanuts.

        Nearby Sweetwater Farm's hydroponic tomatoes, which are grown in foot-square, perlite-filled buckets rather than soil, have appeared sliced at many catered events.

        Farm owner Ron Young sells his tomatoes to the university's catering department and its dormitory food service.

        Young does not plan to expand production at his greenhouse, which has 660 tomato plants that last year averaged about 28 pounds of tomatoes each.

        “If we had more tomatoes, we could sell more tomatoes,” said Young. “It takes too much time.”

        Young said he approached Shelton with the “buy locally” idea.

        “By the time I brought it up, he was already thinking about it,” Young said.

        Farmers say Ohio University wasn't always open to buying locally.

        J.B. King, a hog farmer from nearby Albany, said that when he first attempted to sell to the school, officials said they weren't interested.

        “They didn't want to deal with a little of this and then contract out for the rest,” said King, whose wife, Charlene, works in Shelton's department.

        King said he hopes to become a major supplier of hot dogs and bratwurst for university cookouts and sporting events.

        “I don't think this will ever reach the point where we'll ever serve the university's sausage needs or the university's bacon needs,” King said. “We can't compete on price.”

        Shelton said the farmers and the university have made adjustments to make the program work.

        He said he has provided many farmers with technical expertise on subjects including creation of an order and invoice system and saving packaging the farmer can reuse.

        Shelton said he and members of his staff plan to talk with participating farmers in the next two months to try to link more of the university's menu with the farmers' products.


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