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Pat Carey of Charlie's Produce talks gourds with Janeanne Rockwell-Kincanon Oct. 24 during WOU's Food Week.
October 30, 2012
MONMOUTH -- Where food comes from, what's in it and how easy or difficult it is getting enough to eat aren't the things the average college student spends an inordinate amount of time contemplating, said Katie Corcoran, a senior at Western Oregon University.
That's "unless they're in that situation or it's presented to them," Corcoran added.
That's when habits and perspectives tend to change. For Corcoran, it was hearing about issues in class or through her involvement with the school's "Green Team."
When she grocery shops, she'll search for foods that have five ingredients or less, and steers away from items with unrecognizable components.
"I don't go stand on a corner and preach," she said. "But if I have friends with questions, I talk to them."
There was a time when how locally sourced a meal is was the concern of habitual farmers market shoppers or health professionals.
Because of national health issues and the economy, however, "food movement" concerns of recent years are becoming front and center, including at Western.
Staff and students at the university have become more food-centric in recent years, with surveys on campus hunger, the start of a school garden in 2011 and a food bank in May.
Last week, WOU hosted its first "Food Week" that included a long list of activities and lectures centered on food sustainability, nutrition and scarcity.
"Eating locally is one of the most positive ways you can have an impact on so many things -- the environment, the economy and your health," said Jen Bracy, a WOU assistant professor of art who helped spearhead the event.
Lead dinner cook Kevin Leard arranges fresh cut vegetables on sheet pans for roasting Oct. 24 while preparing a special "clean menu" at Valsetz Dining Center on WOU's campus.
"The food movement is a change you can make in your lifestyle that can have the most direct and positive impact," she said.
The trend is mainstream. Data shows that between 1994 and 2012, the number of farmers markets nationwide has increased by almost 350 percent. Much attention was given to federal school lunch guidelines regarding calorie intake, ingredients and the amount of produce children are eating.
"I believe it's a hot topic because we're seeing the results of a nation that hasn't eaten healthy," said Jackson Stalley, a Food Week coordinator.
Generally, a diet or meal is considered local if the ingredients originated an hour away or within a 200 mile drive, depending on availability.
According to the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, the average distance a meal travels from its source to your plate is 1,500 miles.
Karen Nelles, food services director at WOU and a dietitian, said the university has contracted with Portland-based Charlie's Produce and its network of farms in Oregon for all of its fruits and vegetables.
Whenever practical, meals are made from scratch and prepared on campus. Most of the 500 pounds of produce featured in the residence dining hall's salad bar each week has been chopped and readied by staff and student workers.
Premade foods have been reduced to a minimum, and the school has tried to keep menus "clean" -- no food coloring, preservatives and stabilizers. Nelles noted WOU dropped a contract with a commercial granola maker recently because of preservatives.
As part of Food Week on Oct. 24, almost every ingredient used on the dinner menu was local.
"That's kind of our vision for the future," Nelles said.
The WOU Food Bank was created last year and serves needy students and staff. A survey regarding financial status of classified workers at WOU in 2011 showed 30 percent of respondents who received financial aid used it to buy food, while 13 stated they've frequented food banks.
Keri Knight, a WOU junior and member of Western's student government, actively directs peers to the service whenever she hears talk of money troubles.
"With the economy the way it is, student financial aid has been cut," she said. "I've heard them talking about getting aid, but that it's $1,000 less than when they started.
"I don't know if students publicly talk about hunger because they want to save face," Knight continued. "It's a private struggle, but I think it's widespread."