The college produces a portion of its own food through two campus-owned farms, buys a part of its meat and seafood from sustainable and ethical sources, and was rated seventh for best campus food by The Princeton Review. Even so, there’s a general misconception about food at the college. Many are surprised to discover that only 27 percent of the college’s food is organic, roughly 65 percent of the college’s meat is non-local and non-organic, and nearly 3/4 of the dairy consumed is non-local and non-organic. People involved with food issues on campus passionately work to make the school’s food nourishing and ethical.

One initiative on campus is the Real Food Challenge. The Real Food Challenge is a movement to “shift $1 billion of existing university food budgets away from industrial farms and junk food and towards local/community-based, fair, ecologically sound and humane food sources—what we call “real food”—by 2020”, the movement’s website says.

The project is led by College of the Atlantic’s food group. Functioning independently from the cafeteria, the group analyzes the receipts of purchased food from the school’s cafeteria Take-A-Break (TAB) and brings that information to the public. The main goal of the organization is to facilitate conversation about food on campus.

“We’re really trying to get this information out there and try to figure out the best way for people to interpret it correctly,” says Chelsi Torres ’17, a member of the group. “Seeing it in depth has definitely changed a little bit of what I eat in TAB. If everybody could see what we see, we would start voting with what we eat… it would be a much more fluid system.”

COA currently uses somewhere between 25 and 33 percent of “real food”, which is defined as either local, organic, or humane, according to Torres. Outside of this, COA uses several large distributers to meet the remaining food demands, including Performance Food Group, Associated Buyers, and Sysco.

When asked how the kitchen decides what kinds of food to order, Ken Sebelin, a kitchen manager, responded, “Availability, cost, consistency, and reliability.” Sebelin, a COA grad himself, is very open to speaking with the student body. “We’re open to input, so it’s just of matter of people wanting to input,” he says.

The college buys a significant amount of local and organic foods and is constantly making improvements. For example, two years ago, the school ordered eggs from large non-local distributors. Now, the school uses all cage free eggs or eggs from Peggy Rockefeller Farms, a farm owned by the college.

Torres talks about the willingness of the kitchen staff to facilitate the food needs of COA students.

“If we tell them to stop buying something, they’ll just stop buying it,” she says. “They’re doing an awesome job already.”

TAB kitchen staff and students, generally, are very pro-local food. The kitchen staff are on board with bringing more local and organic food to TAB, and they are more than happy to accommodate demands from the student body. So, what’s missing? Space.

According to Sebelin, one of the biggest limiting factors to buying more local foods is lack of storage space in the TAB kitchen. Take local meat for example. “If people want organic meat to be cost effective, we have to purchase directly from the farmer”, says Sebelin. “There’s a finance component to all of it.” Increasing the purchase of local meats would require more storage space to accommodate bulk orders, something the kitchen does not worry about when buying small quantities of meat at a time from large distributers.

In addition to limiting local meat purchases, the lack of space also hampers how much local produce the college can preserve and eat throughout the winter.

“We could produce all the tomato sauce we need for a year, but that would take a lot of space,” says Sebelin. “The time for expansion is passing us, we have to do it,” he says.

One solution that would partially meet the college’s need for storage of vegetables is the college’s very own root cellar. Located behind the Buildings and Grounds buildings, the cellar stands unassuming and, for the most part, unused. Janoah Bailin ’14 started the project his first year at COA with another student, Alex Pine ’14. Before he could open the door, he had to chip away a significant amount of ice; symbolically relevant as the cellar has fallen through the cracks in recent times.

The cellar’s walls display vibrant splashes of color; Bailin and Pine gathered friends in the space to paint the walls and put them to work organizing food. The space is large enough to accommodate most of the college’s yearly demand for root vegetables.

“We stored enough carrots to last two terms last year. It took up one shelf along one wall,” said Bailin.

Bailin opened a crate of apples he stored in the cellar from the fall. He took a large bite from one and smiled, “This is pretty much the same apple I put down here.”

According to Bailin, after the initial energy of the project wore down it was very hard to maintain. “The everyday running of it felt like a slog. I didn’t feel like it was really going to go anywhere,” he said. He cites lack of community response and involvement for some of his difficulties in running the cellar. Bailin has been volunteering his time for the entire project. “It would be great if this could be a work-study job,” he said.

Bailin and Pine started the project during their first year at COA. In recent years, their academic trajectories have led them away from the project.  The two will both graduate this coming spring term; now they are looking for others to take over the project after they leave. “No one has stepped up and asked me to take it over,” says Bailin.

 Many food activists run into many difficulties while trying to sustain a food project over a long period of time. According to Lucas Burdick ’15, a student heavily involved in food issues on campus, “The biggest issue is continuity.” He believes it’s very hard for students to sustain a project for four years and then pass the accumulated knowledge on to the next generation of students.

In order to facilitate the exchange of knowledge related to food, Burdick plans to start a slow food club on campus in the spring of 2014. He wants this to be a platform on campus to “share food culture, to teach culinary methods, and have a focus on quality food,” he said.

Slow Food is a movement founded in the 1980’s in Italy that counters the standardized, globalized fast food model and “envisions a world in which all people can access and enjoy food that is good for them, good for those who grow it and good for the planet,” according to the movement’s website.

“This is an outreach club to bring people into the food system at COA,” says Burdick.

Many exciting ideas and projects exist at the college, both conceptually and on the ground. Several projects have not been included in this article. Rory Curtin ’17 is leading a project to bring goats to the college owned Peggy Rockefeller Farms. Students in Molly Anderson’s classes have thought of a project that would produce maple syrup at the college. Still other students have conceptualized plans that would create edible gardens on campus. Many students often feel that what is lacking is energy and support from the community. “When things got creative, I had fun and it worked,” says Bailin, referring to his cellar project.

COA is a community that often focuses on the ideal, and food is no exception.

“There is this idea of what food should be which is different from what food actually is,” says Maddie Hoeppner ’16.

Food at COA has been evolving since day one. “Back in the 90’s there were probably 40 meat eaters,” says Sebelin. The struggle now is to bring the high ideals down onto the ground, and make them work. Hopefully, with a combination of student motivation and support from the campus, College of the Atlantic will continue to make a better and more delicious future, one plate at a time.