An Interview with Piper Fernwey, Sustainability Support Manager for Bon Appétit

learn about sustainability initiatives at denison dining

We’ve worked with the dining halls & catering service at our local Denison University since Bon Appétit took the helm in 2013. They’ve made an impact with their commitment to local purchasing not only to our own business, but also for many of our friends in the local food community who are farmers and producers. Read more about Denison Dining’s sustainability initiatives here.

Grabbing a meal at Denison is one of Granville’s best kept secrets. And the crème de la crème - their “Eat Local Challenge" day each year, when one dining hall is transformed into an entirely locavore experience. On this day, Piper works with some truly innovative kitchen staff to source the entire menu locally and to find substitutions down to locally made syrups for the soda machines.

What is your role at Denison/Bo
n Appétit?

I'm the Community Programs & Sustainability Support Manager for Bon Appétit Management Company. I'm based at Denison University in Granville, Ohio, and mainly work with accounts throughout Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. I help these accounts set up relationships with local farmers and source locally, improve their sustainability through better product sourcing, waste management practices, food donation, etc., and also work with student groups and classes on projects, field trips, and guest lectures around food system sustainability.

Can you describe some of Denison's progress with local food procurement?

After just 3 years of running the food service at Denison University, we're up to 41% of our food being locally and responsibly sourced. For us, local means small farmers within 150 miles, and artisans that are small and local and also meet our other criteria for value added products (including sourcing locally for raw ingredients, being minority or women owned, etc.). Responsibly sourced means certified by a third party organization, such as seafood deemed sustainable by Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch Program, Fair Trade Certified Bananas, Humane Certified eggs, etc.

What are the biggest obstacles for institutions or restaurants that would like to source more locally?

Usually, bureaucratic red tape that stops institutions from even being able to purchase locally, or puts insurmountable obstacles in the way. After that, time.

The industrial food system is set up in a way that it's super easy to order all your food from one place online and have it magically show up on a truck two days later. Thus, ordering from other businesses takes time to find that business, develop a relationship, pay another vendor, talk to or email someone different for orders, etc. Denison has relationships with over 40 local vendors - it takes a dedicated chef to want to call someone different for the cheese versus the milk versus the yogurt every week.

What is your favorite success story from your time at Denison?

We had been serving different varieties of local Stutzman Farms puffed cereals - like honey puffed corn - but with minimal success as students were still drawn to the neon colored, marshmallow and sugar filled cereals of their childhoods. Having a class take a field trip to Stutzman's mill and see (and hear!) the cereal being shot out of their big puffer, and the honey coating baked on in their MacGyver-ed oven tumbler definitely helped with consumption. But to get those still drawn to the neon-colored sugaryness, I thought we could have the puffed grains coated in something else to lend them a different color and flavor. So I approached Michael Jaeb of Simple Products syrups, who makes his fruit syrups from fruit he grows on his farm outside of Millersburg, to see if he'd be interested in a partnership of this sort. And I talked to Monroe Stutzman to confirm my suspicion that if honey worked as a coating, then syrup wouldn't be that different. Thus started a fun process of figuring out what flavors and ratios were best, what the best grain to use was, and lots of taste testing. We let the students give feedback on how sweet they wanted it, and relied on the creativity of Michael and Monroe to make a great new "kid-friendly" product that didn't compromise the organic, no artificial ingredients integrity of their products. The result was bright pink strawberry puffed wheat cereal (made extra pink with beet root powder), a salted caramel (that people swear tastes just like Sugar Snaps), and a host of other flavors using Michael's syrups. Definitely one of my favorite success stories as Michael and Monroe were not only willing but excited to run with me on this crazy idea, but it's led to a great new product, partnership, and sales for these two local vendors. And now I've tricked more Denison students into eating a local organic cereal product that supports not one, but two local partners by covering it in bright pink sugary strawberry goodness!

Do you see a connection between sourcing local food and using eco-friendly disposable serviceware?

Absolutely! I see something hypocritical about serving a responsibly and locally sourced dish on a styrofoam plate! We "vote with our dollar" when it comes to food - buying produce from people we trust to take care of the land, water, and air in our community, keeping our dollar in small local businesses, and better setting up our communities for a successful future. So those values should influence all of our purchases, including the to-go ware with which we're eating the food.

Does Denison compost its food waste?

Yes! Our Facilities team picks up compost from each of our 3 dining locations 5 days a week and composts our food waste in wind rows, to be used eventually as compost in our community garden.

What are the Greenies?

Greenies are our reusable to-go ware program. One of our dining locations is entirely take-out, a situation we inherited from what used to be a collection of franchises like Taco Bell and the like. As such, there's no dishwasher, so everything is take out. We wanted to offer people a non disposable alternative. So greenies are a reusable, bright green (hence the name) clamshell style container people can choose to get their food in, and then return so we can transport to a dining hall with a dishwasher, wash and reuse. Use of the greenies is free as long as students return them.

What advice would you give institutions looking to source more locally?

Figure out exactly what your obstacles are and what needs to be solved first. It doesn't matter if you find local food that's less expensive than conventional, if distribution is the obstacle and you have no way of getting it to you. Or if you figure out distribution, only to find out that you still can't source from them because of contracts set up by the food service company, you just did a lot of work for nothing. The best place to start is the food service provider and asking what their purchasing policies are, and if there's any flexibility there for local purchasing.