March 15, 2010

Food for thought

— If there's any doubt about just how savvy people have become about the food they put into their mouths, consider the e-mails that Christine Schwartz gets every day from students at Bates College.

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Doug Jones/staff photographer: Monday, September 29, 2008: Summitt Springs, a Harrison Maine company, is the bottled water of choice at Bates because of its environmentally- friendly bottling . Christine Schwartz, head of dining services at Bates College in Lewiston is using a $2.5 million donated anonymously to her department to green up . Choices have broadened to include: spring water from a company that offers environmentally- friendly bottling, a flash freezer for local vegetable purchases, spelt, glutin-free bagels, and more "vegan" dishes

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Doug Jones/staff photographer: Monday, September 29, 2008: Christine Schwartz, stirs a vegetarian fricassee while "first cook" Michael Landry mixes a Teriayaki Green bean salad. Schwartz, head of dining services at Bates College in Lewiston, is using a $2.5 million donated anonymously to her department to green up . Choices have broadened to include: spring water from a company that offers environmentally- friendly bottling, a flash freezer for local vegetable purchases, spelt, glutin-free bagels, and more "vegan" dishes.

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Schwartz, director of dining services at the private college in Lewiston, paraphrased a query she received from a curious student one morning last week: ''I love the pesto soup, but clearly the recipe is not the same as last time, and I want to know why.''

'' 'When's the local apple cider coming in? I'm dying for it,' '' Schwartz continued, reciting the requests she gets regularly. '' 'Can you get us enriched soy milk? We're out of the low-fat French vanilla soy yogurt.'

''And then they will send me specific labels of food they want, or farms they want food from. My life has become much more complicated.''

More complicated, yes, as students' eating patterns and demands have changed. But lately Schwartz's life has gotten a little easier too. Bates announced in early September that it has received a $2.5 million gift from an anonymous donor that was to be earmarked for dining services. More specifically, the money is to be used to increase the school's budget for local, organic foods.

''It's extremely rare for a dining service to get this sort of anonymous gift, because much more often, they'll give to a chair or a building or something traditionally educational in nature,'' Schwartz said.

The grant has been put into an endowment, and Schwartz is doing some interesting things with the investment income. The school has jumped on board with a year-long, campus-wide initiative called ''Nourishing Body and Mind: Bates Contemplates Food.''

Throughout the school year, food politics will be on the menu. Students will explore where their food comes from and how it gets here. Earlier this week, they heard Paul Rozin, a professor from the University of Pennsylvania, discuss the psychology of food choices. On Oct. 27, the school's annual Otis Lecture will focus on food with a talk by Michael Pollan, bestselling author of ''The Omnivore's Dilemma.''

On Oct. 29, the environmental studies program will sponsor a free public screening of two documentaries about local food producers.

Bates received the $2.5 million gift a couple of years ago, but waited to disclose it until this year, after the construction of its new energy-efficient dining commons was complete. The reasoning was that the gift might detract attention from the capital improvement project.

Bates is one of several Maine colleges that have already gained national reputations for their food. It made the top 20 list for ''Best Campus Food'' in the ''Princeton Review's Best 368 Colleges 2009,'' which ranks colleges using student reviews. Other Maine schools making the list were Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Colby College in Waterville and College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor.

These schools are perennial favorites on those lists, partly because of their emphasis on serving local, organic foods. With the $2.5 million gift in hand, Bates has been able to expand its offerings in this area. Local and organic foods now make up a bigger slice of the food-budget pie, growing from 22 percent to 28 percent. Schwartz's goal is to make it 30 percent.

Bates now buys grass-fed beef from Cold Spring Ranch in New Portland, the same farm that provides Primo, Fore Street, Back Bay Grill and other well-known Maine restaurants with locally raised meat. Its bagels come from Spelt Right Bakery in Yarmouth, a company that makes its products from organic spelt flour and other all-natural ingredients.

Another change was in bottled water, a hot topic these days as the public debates the environmental impact of taking water out of aquifers and trucking it around in millions of plastic bottles that end up in landfills.

Bates easily goes through 4,200 cases of bottled water a year for catered and special events. That's more than 100,000 bottles.

''At this point, we're not in a position, nor is any other collegiate dining service that I know of, to completely eliminate bottled water,'' Schwartz said. ''So what I decided to do was look at bottled water and see how we could embrace it more environmentally.''

The school now pays a little more for water from Summit Spring in Harrison, the only bottled water company that's been allowed to become a member of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association. Its water comes from a gravity-fed spring that doesn't need pumping and doesn't empty aquifers, Schwartz said.

''In my opinion, that's as close as we can get at this point in time to not having bottled water at all,'' she said.

Schwartz is also buying organic chocolate milk from a Greene farm to serve students on the weekends.

''While I cannot change all my milk to organic because it would double what I'm paying for milk right now -- we're spending a lot of money on milk -- what we were able to do is take 50 gallons of their organic chocolate,'' Schwartz said.

Schwartz bought a blast chiller for the new dining commons so she can flash-freeze fresh produce, and then she increased storage space to take better advantage of seasonal foods.

''We put up 150 pounds of blueberries this year,'' she said. ''We bought them in season for Maine -- out of season for the school year -- at a very attractive price. They'd be much more expensive if we had to buy them during the academic year, so we've got them sitting in the freezer waiting for January and February.

''I want to see how we can push that summer envelope. My purchasers have already had conversations with several farmers about, 'Hey, can you plant this for me next year and let me see how it works out?'

''And if it works out, we'll take a field of it.''

Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at:

mgoad@pressherald.com

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Additional Photos

click image to enlarge

Doug Jones/staff photographer: Monday, September 29, 2008: Kelly Perrault, a food service worker at Bates College, refills the glutin free "Spelt" bagel bin in the college dining Hall. Christine Schwartz, head of dining services at Bates College in Lewiston is using a $2.5 million donated anonymously to her department to green up . Choices have broadened to include: spring water from a company that offers environmentally- friendly bottling, a flash freezer for local vegetable purchases, spelt, glutin-free bagels, and more "vegan" dishes

  


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