Campus Life

From farm to dining commons: Penn State a leader in locally sourced food

Much of the food enjoyed by students in the University's dining commons are sourced from local farmers and vendors, including produce grown by Penn State students on campus at the Student Farm. Credit: Patrick Mansell / Penn StateCreative Commons

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Penn State students go through more than 132,000 gallons of fresh milk from University Park’s much-beloved Berkey Creamery every year, but that’s not the only campus to enjoy fresh milk from a local source.

In fact, every Penn State campus serviced by Housing and Food Services exclusively serves milk from nearby dairies, directly supporting farmers all across Pennsylvania — and that’s just one piece of a much larger picture. Penn State is a leader in higher education in its commitment to supporting local economies and serving locally sourced, farm-to-table food options whenever possible. In total, more than 16 percent of all food purchased by the University comes directly from Pennsylvania farmers, producers, manufacturers and vendors.

“They’re a part of our community, just as we’re a part of theirs,” said Lisa Wandel, director of residential dining. “They’re our friends, our neighbors, our church members who have these businesses, and we want to support each other.”

Palumbo’s Meat Market in DuBois is one of the more than 85 Pennsylvania vendors that works with the University, and owner Joe Palumbo said his business’s 20-year relationship with Penn State has helped his market thrive.

“It’s great to see Penn State buying local, because it turns that money around inside Pennsylvania, which is good for our economy and our local businesses,” Palumbo said. “You always want to support the people that support you, and this has positively impacted my business quite a bit.”

According to figures from the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, Penn State utilizes more locally sourced foodstuffs than many institutions of similar size while simultaneously holding itself to a more stringent standard for what qualifies as “local” than many of its peers.

Housing and Food Services Purchasing Director John Mondock said that Penn State has two University-wide policies that prioritize and guide this initiative. One gives preference to the purchase of “local” products, defined as being produced or manufactured in Pennsylvania, which has been in place for years. The second was developed during the 2016-17 academic year, and makes the use of “hyperlocal” products a University priority.

“What’s going to qualify as hyperlocal for Erie is going to be different than at University Park, as we’ve defined ‘hyperlocal’ as being produced either in the county in which a campus resides, or in a neighboring county,” said Mondock. “We’re always striving to find new local and hyperlocal vendors. We always want to be moving that mark forward.”

One of the major sources of hyperlocal produce at University Park is the Penn State Student Farm, formally established in 2016. Run by members of the Student Farm Club and housed within Penn State’s Sustainability Institute, the student farm gives agricultural science students hands-on experience growing a variety of produce served in the dining commons across campus. Stephane Gawlowicz, managing chef of the Redifer Dining Commons, said he works closely with the students to plan meals and special events that wouldn’t be possible without the farm.

“This relationship puts us in a privileged position, as we’re fortunate to work directly with the student farm to plan and anticipate our needs and stay ahead of the game,” said Gawlowicz. “We’ve been enjoying their hydroponic spring mix over the winter, which has been crunchier and held up longer — it’s been awesome.”

Penn State’s focus on buying from hyperlocal sources allows each campus to benefit from fresh, sustainably sourced food that best fits the different needs of each campus, while simultaneously supporting smaller businesses across the Commonwealth. Jim Richard, senior director of enterprise services, notes that this focus on the local and hyperlocal also has major implications for the University’s sustainability initiatives.

“By cutting down on transportation costs and emissions, these efforts are in direct alignment with our larger sustainability efforts,” Richard said. “Penn State is committed to reducing its carbon footprint, and we support that mission through eliminating the carbon produced while transporting goods.”

Mondock notes that Housing and Food Services has made sustainability a priority at every level, from using local produce to cut down on carbon emissions, by recycling pallets used during transportation, and through strategically planning delivery and transportation routes to maximize efficiency and further reduce emissions.

No matter which way you slice it, Richard said, purchasing food and other products from local and hyperlocal markets just makes sense.

“A locally sourced product is healthier, it’s fresher, and it’s better for the environment,” Richard said. “The movement for a long time has been toward the ‘fresh, local, clean label,’ and we’re proud to be leading that movement in higher education.”

The Student Farm, one of the University's "hyperlocal" suppliers of fresh produce, works directly with the dining commons to provide high quality, fresh produce — like the wax beans pictured here. Credit: Patrick Mansell / Penn StateCreative Commons

Last Updated September 20, 2019