By Peggy Briggs, New England Farm & Sea to Campus Network | Communications & Outreach Working Group Chair

Posted April 18, 2017

News

The Hotchkiss School in Connecticut Helps Lead the Way With Local & Sustainable Sourcing

Feature Photo Caption: Michael Webster, General Manager at Hotchkiss Dining (photo by Wendy Carlson, courtesy of Hotchkiss)

On the first day of their high school career at the Hotchkiss School in Lakeville, Conn., members of the incoming freshman class dig in – literally – to the school’s holistic approach to educating students about the food system. Arriving on campus begins their academic journey and their initiation to Fairfield Farm, the school’s 288-acre agricultural classroom (watch farm video here), where the “preps” unearth 5,000 pounds of potatoes to stock the kitchen larder. That connection between local food and the dinner plates in the dining hall is at the center of General Manager Michael Webster’s mission to cultivate an institutional culture of problem solving to provide sustainable and healthy food for the school community.

Photo Caption: Hotchkiss Freshman harvest 5,000 pounds of potatoes on the first day of orientation, setting the stage for a holistic education in healthy food. Photo by J. Doster, courtesy of Hotchkiss.

Breaking new ground to shift food purchasing to a local model is no small undertaking, so Webster empowers his dining services team to think creatively to solve problems and overcome obstacles.

“Everyone always told me that buying local was too expensive and couldn’t be done,” explains Webster. “I say it can be done, you just cannot continue to put a square peg in a round role.”

Part chef, part visionary, part disruptor, Webster drives change within the contract dining fee model by re-thinking and re-imagining every aspect of how food is purchased, processed, and prepared for the Hotchkiss student body.

“We are investing in what it means to buy local – how it affects the community at large and how it affects the Hotchkiss community from the time the food is produced until it’s consumed,” said Webster.

With sustainability as the overarching goal, the dining services team deconstructs the traditional supply chain in favor of an innovative model to secure wholesome food from local farms and companies that use sustainable and organic practices.

With a laser-focused and ambitious target to hit 50 percent locally-sourced products by 2020, the Hotchkiss team has an impressive track record of re-directing commodity purchasing practices to support local and regional farmers and producers.

“We’ve been able to innovate this program in a very short period of time,” said Webster, who estimates that with a shift in purchasing practices. Hotchkiss injected $416,000 into the local economy in the 2015-2016 academic year and is on track to direct $725,000 to producers within a hundred-mile radius during the 2016-2017 academic year.

On the upswing, with a total average of 49 percent of food purchased meeting the Real Food Challenge criteria, the Hotchkiss dining team is rewriting the rules of commodity sourcing by forging mutually beneficial relationships with local producers.

"We are supporting farmers with a living wage, built on trust with people in the community," said Webster. "We can get product that we can believe in at a price we can afford, and they are able to make the money they need to grow their farms. We care about taking care of the people who make our food."

Mountain View Farm in Falls Village, Conn., supplies pasture-raised, antibiotic and gestation-crate-free hogs and exemplifies the win-win proposition created by Hotchkiss’ pioneering local, whole-animal purchase program.

Photo Caption: Mountain View Farm in Falls Village, Conn., supplies pasture-raised, antibiotic and gestation-crate-free hogs and exemplifies the win-win proposition created by Hotchkiss’ pioneering local, whole-animal purchase program. Photo courtesy of Hotchkiss.

In mutually beneficial agreements – sometimes sealed with just a handshake – Webster contracts with local farmers to procure nearly 100 percent of campus beef, pork, lamb, duck and bison products and a growing percentage of chicken and goat meat. Those direct contract agreements between Hotchkiss and local farmers are a game-changer for many operations.

Mountain View Farm’s owners, Lara and Patrick Hafner, credit their relationship with Hotchkiss dining with increased profitability, which has allowed them to offer more products year-round to the community and grow their business.

“That means that local area consumers have great access to locally raised, pastured pork and that our farm can continue to expand both our customer base and the variety of our product offerings,” the Hafners said in a statement.

Hotchkiss’ rural campus community of about 1,000 students, faculty and employees is large enough to wield substantial purchasing clout in the market, but small and nimble enough to create meaningful change without long lead times. Adopting new sourcing strategies is only one part of the equation; the dining team also works to reshape expectations around the campus dining experience.

“The idea behind modern-day food service is unlimited choice,” said Webster. “There is no way you can do that with a local purchasing model.”

Rather than offering a full complement of protein options, Webster focuses on one quality omnivore component for each meal, which frees up resources to increase peripheral vegetarian and vegan options.

“Finding a model that focuses on quality rather than quantity is a long-term solution to managing costs surrounding local,” said Webster.

To make good on the department’s mantra, “We Make Real Food for Real People,” the dining staff needs to manage costs tightly by making tough trade-offs in its transition from commodity to wholesome, local products. Pre-made, chemically preserved foods are never served in the Hotchkiss dining room, and everything from the salad bar’s homemade salad dressing to the in-house brined and hand-carved Miller turkey served on the lunch line reflect the school’s commitment to fresh, local, and nutritional menus.  

A recent swap out of a commodity jelly to a product free of high-fructose corn syrup challenged Webster to find an annual $8,000 to pay for that costly shift. The balancing act requires innovative planning and analytical financial skills to set priorities within a limited budget. With a supportive Hotchkiss administration and an actively engaged student body, Webster leads his team to make meaningful change within the constraints of a fee-structure contract and holds them accountable for building a sound business strategy around every positive move toward sustainability.

“Integrating real food into a program takes creative solutions, new standard operating procedures, and a lot of hard work for all involved,” said Webster. “Hire the right people, empower them to be the best, and watch the program grow.”

From the dishwasher rewarded with a cash bonus for learning to fix and maintain his machine to a prep cook mastering new pickling skills to utilize winter vegetables, Webster creates an environment where innovation is fostered and rewarded. Staff promotions and pay raises are tied to an employee’s ability to identify and solve problems that push the program forward.

The Hotchkiss senior prom, which is held at Fairfield Farm, where students witnessed the school’s commitment to real food on their first day of school, bookends their time on campus and reinforces the value of a healthy and vibrant food system as they step out into the world.

“From beginning to end in the four years they are here,” reflects Webster, “students gain a holistic approach to food, including where it comes from, why it’s important, and how they can make a difference when they leave here.”

FIVE PRACTICAL STEPS TO TRANSITION FROM CONVENTIONAL TO LOCAL SOURCING

“Transitioning from conventional to a local [food] program does not happen overnight, and will take several years to complete. Start to look for what you can do now to make opportunities for the future.” - Michael Webster, General Manager at Hotchkiss Dining

1. MAKE IN-HOUSE SOUP STOCK  

Swap preservative and sodium-packed processed bases and reduce kitchen waste by utilizing usable trim and bones from menu production proteins.

2. USE DRY BEANS IN PLACE OF CANNED  

Shelf the canned beans loaded with sodium and other preservatives in favor of dried lentils, chickpeas, black beans, kidney, navy beans and the like. This change requires some planning but amps up the nutrition quotient while reducing cost.

3. MAKE HOUSE SAUSAGE WITH GROUND MEAT  

Take control of the ingredients and flavor profile of sausages on offer and develop “house recipes.” This step allows you to put some culinary creativity to work to utilize pork alternative options like chicken, duck, lamb and beef.

4. MAKE IN-HOUSE LARD 

Take the time to render lard or tallow from pork or beef to be reused as fat for cooking, lard for pie crust or quiche pastry, or season tallow for marinade/dips for steak.

5. FERMENT 

Add diversity to the dining hall menu with pickles, sauerkraut, and kimchi. Reap the probiotic benefits of fermented foods while utilizing lower cost produce like carrots, cabbage, and cucumbers.