Restaurant Review - Slow Food U: Emory University's sustainable-food initiative

Going green is so trendy it's hard to differentiate the real progress from the spin. But Atlanta's Emory University has shown true commitment with a new sustainable-food initiative to replace 75 percent of its food supply with local products by 2015. Emory is the first college in the Southeast to bring the region's farms to its tables on such a large scale — about 8,000 people a day eat on the campus.

That's a lot of mouths. So in August the school hired Julie Shaffer as the Sustainable Food Service education coordinator to help make this ambitious plan a reality. Shaffer, who's also the founder and regional governor of the Slow Food Atlanta chapter (an international organization bearing the mantra "good, clean and fair food for all," which promotes localizing the food system and bringing endangered foods back to the table), affirms the university's unyielding commitment to the project, but admits the change "isn't going to happen overnight."

"It's a very ambitious goal and that's why we've set a very ambitious deadline of 2015," Shaffer says. "Emory has hired a farm liaison to make contact with farmers throughout the state to bring them on board as producers and food providers for the Emory campus. "We do recognize without this sort of person, looking at the big picture, planning ahead, we're not likely to meet the goals."

She also explains that participating farmers are paid fair market price for their products, since supporting local agriculture is a vital element in the sustainable-food movement. "We're not asking farmers to lower their prices; we're paying a premium for top-quality local, sustainable foods."

But demand for homegrown food already outweighs supply in Georgia, and the school, which also has a farmers' market, green dormitories and its own vegetable gardens, runs the risk of hogging local inventory. Seasonal offerings will drive menu options and inevitably force Emory to look beyond Georgia's borders for ingredients if it plans to serve much more than squash in the winter.

The university has assembled a team of 31 independent farmers who are "very excited" about the project, according to Shaffer. Some farmers are even buying more land to up production, and others are constructing greenhouses to extend the growing season. The local buffet will include berries, watermelons, peanuts and squash from Miles Berry Farm in Baxley, Ga., and humanely raised, drug-free, grass-fed beef cuts from Bluffton's White Oak Pastures. To nab the fleeting, seasonal foods, Emory will have to ask its neighbors for a cup of sugar ... or a crate of veggies.

"Whenever possible we get things from Georgia," Shaffer says. "You can't get tomatoes in Georgia certain times of the year, and are students going to want to give up tomatoes on their salads and sandwiches? The answer is no, they're not ... so we will source things from other states around us. But we are going to make sure those locals are as close as possible."

Buying goods from local and regional farms should help Emory reduce its carbon footprint. According to the USDA, the United States transported $120 billion of produce in imports and exports in 2005, averaging about 1,500 miles from farm to fork. When goods are purchased locally, food-service providers (like Emory's Sodexo) travel shorter distances, use less fuel and lessen their impact on the environment.

Emory will, however, have to go the distance for lunchroom staples that can't be sourced within the eight-state perimeter such as coffee, bananas and chocolate, but is adamant about making sure the products are fair-trade.

The initiative is also attractive to students looking for healthier options in their college diets. Freshman Haley Ratner appreciates the choices: "I think it's a great initiative. I eat really healthy at home and coming here and having the option to eat really healthy and not having to eat pizza and pasta and greasy food all the time is definitely a bonus." Soon, every Tuesday between 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m., students will be able to swipe their Emory cards and purchase fresh herbs, natural cleansers (shea butter, soaps), seasonal fruits, vegetables and flowers from the Emory farmers' market located outside the Cox Hall dining facility.

Despite the meal-plan overhaul, students' favorite fast-food spots will remain. "We are not forcing this down anyone's throat, no pun intended," Shaffer says. "We aim to educate. And it's not that we are going to be the food police; we are going to present students with options and educate them and let them decide. So is Chick-fil-A going away? No."

A veteran high school teacher, Shaffer is combining her experience in education and activism to start a Slow Food on Campus chapter at Emory. Shaffer is also helping to put the finishing touches on a new demo kitchen located in Few Hall, one of the school's green dorms. The kitchen will serve as a venue for educational and cooking events, chef demonstrations and dinners.

Shaffer emphasizes that the success of these initiatives relies greatly on educating people. "College students like to take on causes. It's one of the best places we can be ... it's a matter of education, some amount of legislative change, and activism. If people see it as just another obligation, another should, another something they have to do, then it's not going to be that successful. But if people can learn why it's important and get engaged and excited about it, it will be successful."