We are all at least aware of the “eat local” movement. We’ve all been primed to know that eating locally is, in many ways, the way to eat sustainably. Eating local was (and in a way still is) the hot new trend. Terms like “Locavores” and catchy phrases like “Think Global Eat Local” have emerged. We’ve seen the “eat local” stickers and the restaurants who tout all their local sourcing on their menu. We’ve got it pretty ingrained in our minds that local food doesn’t just mean sustainable, but tasty (and often more expensive) too. So much so, that now when we hear about local foods night in Sharples, our ears perk up.
But what is local food? If we assume that local food is just better, then how come it’s been so difficult to do? How come “local foods night” is just one night, and not just the norm?
I often wander into Sharples, eating the assortment of foods without questioning their source. So with the attention towards local foods, I was curious to learn about the process of acquiring the different produce at Sharples and to see what locality really means.
I met with Director of Purchasing Janet Kassab and her daughter Mary Kassab from Dining Services in her office in the back of the kitchen. The lively sound of clanging pots and hissing steam permeated the air as I shook their hands. Both women wore large smiles, and I had the sense that I had just walked into someone’s home.
“Oh hi, yes, please take a seat!” Janet said.
The office was full of papers and flyers and to-do lists. Next to me was a long list of vendors. It was then that I realized this operation, though comparatively smaller than those of other universities, is pretty big and complicated.
“Overall, we use around 30 to 40 vendors regularly,” Mary said.
That’s the amount of vendors across the board from everything from canned peaches to meats. But they work most closely with Bill, the owner of West-Chester based American Beauty Fish and Produce. American Beauty purchases from Philadelphia’s food distribution center Lancaster Cooperative Auction and directly from west coast vendors.
“I pick up the phone and I just go ‘Hey Bill, we need [for instance] 30 pounds of tomatoes,” Janet said.
Prices for every item are dependent on the market or other factors such as weather and demand.
“Sometimes [the price] is impacted by national weather events,” said Mary, “We always have to keep in mind that a certain produce [might be] less available and therefore more expensive because of this frost or that flood.”
Bill, well-connected in the market, can inform them of major price changes and Mary and Janet can change their menu accordingly.
“I call Bill, and I say ‘we’re going to need this’ and he’s going to say ‘uh oh all of a sudden we are going to have to pay top dollar for the tomatoes,’ so then I’ll be like ‘okay let’s tweak the menu.’ We’re going to serve grape tomato [instead], change that Greek salad normally made out of the plum tomato that has become so pink and plump and not worth eating,” Janet said.
Both Janet and Mary state that their reactive flexibility is thanks to Sharples being a self-operating system rather than a contracted one.
“Operations that are contracted are married to the same product and the same person,” said Janet, “That’s the way they make money. And we’re lucky we don’t have the same kind of burden.”
The question of locality is very complicated in Sharples. On one level there’s the ‘hyperlocal,’ as Mary calls it, which is easier to identify. Sometimes the apples are from Beechwood Orchards in Biglerville, Pa. However, it is important to realize that the eastcoast’s main harvest is in the summer, and there’s really not much during the rest of the school year.
“Things like banana or oranges are never going to come from a local source,” said Janet, “We also just can’t produce an avocado.”
These non-local products are often extremely difficult to trace. However, since Bill, a local man, is doing the purchasing, the “local” is still being emphasized and supported. The many levels and concentric circles of food distribution nowadays complicates the locality question. What can be certain is that both Mary and Janet purchase and prepare food mainly based on their relations with people.
Janet frequently goes to farmer’s markets where she meets farmers who eventually become a source of both food for Sharples and a sort of family for our Dining Services. One such person is Isaac, “the egg man.”
“Isaac the egg man, you know, has these neighbors Glenn and Nancy Wise … they sell sweet potatoes,” Janet said.
“And when Isaac delivers the eggs, he just brings Glenn and Nancy’s potatoes as well, and sometimes he brings his kid,” Mary said.
It’s a homey operation, where relationships circling outwards through family ties or friendships make things work.
“Nancy wanted us to buy from her son too,” Janet said, “he sells chickens, but they’re frozen so they’re not much use to us.”
The operation is not very strictly planned, and oftentimes Janet, Mary, and their staff have to improvise or change their minds. It’s hard work, but it’s also more fulfilling for Janet.
“This will be my 25th year here, and I started working in the cash office. It seems like [the job] will become so old but it [never does]. My personality wouldn’t be one that’s like, ‘okay this is it and this is it forever.’ I’m always like ‘let’s try this and let’s try that’ and the people in the kitchen go a little cuckoo,” Janet said.
At this point of the interview we were briefly interrupted by a phone call from the ‘tofu guy.’ I could not help but smile at the endearing term, and also the brief annoyance I saw on Janet’s face about the type of tofu. Janet prefers this one-on-one interaction even if it seems like more work.
“As a unit you’re spending money, the college’s money, and I want to give that money to a human being, not to the multi-million dollar [corporation] that is selling this bill of goods,” Janet said.
They also always work with the students in mind, knowing what is popular.
“The cook in there is always like ‘Broccoli?!” Janet gestured wildly with her eyes wide, “Students just fiend for broccoli! It’s incredible.”
This consideration for student preferences also informs the menu.
“The students and all of us, you know, you guys are captives, here all the time. It’s kind of like this is your house, your kitchen, your stuff, and no one really likes to see the same thing. I mean we want to have the same grilled cheese so we have the same basic [foods] but we also like to [say] ‘Ah, we’re having cherry chutney on the pork today … you’re not going to reinvent food, but you’re going to alter it,” Janet said.
If locality simply means the source of food, then we can’t do it unless we always eat the same kind of butternut squash and have extremely limited fruits. In fact, food is extremely hard to trace nowadays because it goes through so many processes. Looking at the boxes of bananas, for example, we could not figure out exactly where they were grown; the stickers indicate the country where they were distributed, but often times they don’t give the full story. But, if locality is about people, relationships, and a strong sense of community, then Mary and Janet’s work is local through and through. From Bill to the ‘Egg Man’ and ‘Tofu Guy,’ one cannot help but acknowledge that Sharples is truly a home operation.
“We get our love letters on our napkins,” said Janet as she gestured towards a wall where comments from the Napkin board are pinned up.
It seems that there is, in fact, a lot of love in Mary and Janet’s kitchen, and if that isn’t local, then locality shouldn’t matter all that much.