The mention of dining hall food tends to conjure up images of soggy pizza and stale burger buns. Not so with Grinnell’s dining hall. This past year, Grinnell made The Daily Meal’s list of the 75 best colleges for food in America.
Dining services has a number of ways to make sure the food in the dining hall is deserving of recognition. More than 90 percent of the food in the dining hall is prepared entirely from scratch. Grinnell’s chefs insist on it. They enjoy the opportunity to flex their culinary muscles and believe it’s important to know exactly what goes into the dining hall food. Dining Services’ pantry processes around a quarter of a million fresh fruits and vegetables each year.
The College makes use of as much locally sourced food as it can. The relatively short growing season of the Midwest does present some difficulties. Although a student-run garden provides a sizeable quantity of herbs for the kitchen.
Every summer, Grinnell’s chefs have the opportunity to come up with and test new dishes for the coming school year. Dick Williams, director of dining services, enjoys summers in Grinnell for that reason. “I’m kind of a dessert guy,” he says, “so I’m a big fan of our new vegan chocolate chip cookie.” This year more than 90 new items made their way into the dining hall.
Williams oversees Grinnell’s dining operations, which includes directing 10 chefs certified by the American Culinary Federation. These chefs consult with Scott Turley, the College’s executive chef, when creating new dishes. Turley is the recipient of the bronze medal in The National Association of College and University Food Services’ Culinary Challenge.
Some students are unapologetically enthusiastic about the food in the dining hall: "Each day is the return of a dish I'd forgotten I've missed,” says Michael Kelley ’16. And everyone has a favorite dish. “All of my favorite foods are the ones where they try interesting flavor combinations and it works, for example a burger with pepperoni, onions, mushrooms, and banana peppers on it,” says Sandy Barnard ’17. Barnard likes a lot of variety in her food and will often go to the spice rack to add extra flavors.
“For me it’s all about choice — giving students as many options as we can,” says Williams, who also serves on the Dining Committee, which advises Dining Services. Students are a major part of the Dining Committee, which Williams says is especially active at Grinnell. In addition to Williams, the committee consists of six students appointed by the Student Government Association, four staff members, and one faculty member. Students, faculty, and staff are encouraged to submit recipes to Dining Services. The chefs take these recipes, scale them up, and try them out to see if they could become permanent fixtures in the College’s dining hall. “We rely very heavily on our student members and implement changes based on their suggestions,” Williams says.
Saunter into the Marketplace, Grinnell’s student dining hall, swipe your P-card at the cashier’s desk, and grab a tray. It’s time for lunch.
It’s cold today, so how about some soup? Tomato or chicken noodle? A grilled cheese sandwich would go well with the tomato soup, plus a few fries. Or maybe the beef, garlic and broccoli stir-fry. For dessert, grab some fresh fruit if you’re feeling virtuous — the chocolate chip cheesecake bar if you’re not.
One thing you might not consider as you’re making your choices is where your food comes from.
Local, Organic Food?
Since high school, Madeline Warnick ’16 has been interested in sustainable foods. At Grinnell, she became active in social justice causes related to food, like Poweshiek CARES, a group of local farmers, citizens, and activists opposed to concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs.
“I’ve been learning how the food movement connects to other social justice systems,” Warnick says. She also learned about the Real Food Challenge, a national organization that encourages college students to advocate for their schools to spend their food budgets on local and organic food sources.
Warnick’s personal and political interests intersected with her academic interest, and an independent study project was born. She set out to learn how much of Grinnell’s food budget is spent on local, organic, humane, and fair trade food.
She approached Dick Williams, director of dining services, about analyzing college food purchases. He was happy to assist.
Analyzing Grinnell’s Food Purchases
To see how Grinnell spends its food budget, Warnick analyzed food purchases for two representative months, April and September 2013. She used the Real Food Challenge calculator, an online tool, to do the analysis. She spent months entering data.
Dining Services uses about 3,000 items in its recipes, and Warnick encountered about 2,000 of them in the invoices she analyzed.
“It’s so hard to find where your food comes from,” Warnick says. She researched products to determine if the vendors were within 250 miles of Grinnell, which meets the Real Food Challenge’s definition of local.
Grinnell serves several local products, including eggs from cage-free hens in Kalona, Iowa, and Anderson Erickson dairy products from Des Moines.
The college buys as much local produce it can, Williams says. This happens primarily in the fall due to seasonal availability.
Fresh, local produce includes apples, pears, grapes, watermelon, herbs, cucumbers, zucchini, and tomatoes. The college also purchases locally grown, frozen sweet corn from a Marshalltown start-up, a farmers’ cooperative, Williams says.
People may assume it’s easy for Grinnell to make these changes, considering the college is smack dab in the middle of a farm state. But Iowa’s main crops are corn and soybeans.
Beyond Product Availability
Product availability is just one obstacle to Grinnell purchasing more local food, Warnick discovered.
Even if a product is local, it may be disqualified as “real food” on other grounds. The Real Food Challenge looks for food from sources that are local/community-based, fair, ecologically sound, and humane.
Part of Warnick’s research was to determine whether foods Grinnell purchased satisfied one or more of these other categories. Disqualifications include foods containing genetically modified organisms — GMOs — artificial color dyes, or partially hydrogenated oils.
Meat from CAFOs is disqualified because it’s not considered humane. Many consumers object to the treatment of animals in confinements, as well as to odors from the buildings and manure pollution in streams.
“My number one priority is getting away from CAFO meat,” Warnick says. However, she recognizes that price is a major obstacle to switching to organic meat.
The price of organic meat can be at least four times greater, Williams says. That would mean at least $150,000 more needed for the food budget per year, he says.
Warnick discovered that Grinnell sees room for improvement in Grinnell’s use of food that’s local, organic, humane, and/or fair trade.
It’s something that’s on Williams’ radar: “I want to investigate and see where we can contribute.”
Warnick hopes to form a working group with dining services staff and students to give input on purchases. Williams is open to the idea.
Madeline Warnick ’16 intends to major in political science and sociology. She’s from Seattle, Washington.
On Friday, May 15 the Marketplace will close at 6:30 p.m., and the Spencer Grill will close at 5:00 p.m. All meal plans will end at 6:30 p.m. On Saturday, May 16 the Marketplace will be open for lunch 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and dinner 5:00 to 6:00 p.m., and the Spencer Grill will be open 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. On Sunday, May 17 the Marketplace will be open for brunch 10:30 a.m. to noon and dinner 6:00 to 6:30 p.m.; The Spencer Grill will be open 8:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. After this time both the Marketplace Dining Hall and the Spencer Grill will be closed for the summer.
Wednesday, April 15 - Ice Cream Sundae Bar 5-7:00 pm
Wednesday, April 22 - In honor of Earth Day, Dirt Cake will be served 5-7:00 pm
Monday, May 11 - Backyard BBQ 5-7:00 pm