THE SUPERSIZING OF LOCAL
HOW THE SCOTTS BROUGHT FARM-DIRECT TO THE MASSEES
Scott Meyer and Scott Carlisle are friends who share similar jobs—Meyer as Associate Director of the University of Texas-Austin’s Division of Housing and Food Service department, and Carlisle as Director of Food Nutrition Services for the Seton Healthcare network of eight local hospitals. Naturally, they share details. Where to get a good deal on thousands of pounds of chicken. What restaurants to troll for a new pastry chef. What to do about the age-old problem of customers who load their plates with more than they can eat. These are the weighty issues that have confronted food service people for years. But in some key ways, the Scotts’ jobs have changed.
Carlisle winces at the phrase “industrial food” and all it implies, and Meyer spent 23 years working for institutions whose priorities now seem outdated. “It was food service,” Meyer recalls, “but my mission was to make money for the shareholders.”
But in recent years, both Scotts have talked less about accounting and quality control, and more about flavor. Meyer, for instance, now hires chefs and sous-chefs away from haute cuisine restaurants. Pastries baked on campus and served hot out of the oven have taken the place of factory muffins. Carlisle’s trying out a room service plan for hospital patients, who can now look forward to a lot more than clear fluids and Jell-O. And both Scotts are serving local, organically grown produce on a massive scale, with the assistance of Austin’s Sustainable Food Center (SFC).
Carlisle’s interest in SFC began with its La Cocina Alegre program, which, among many other services, teaches diabetics to cook their traditional ethnic meals in healthier ways. After joining the SFC board of directors, he got Seton involved in the Farm-to-Cafeteria program, a pilot designed to connect family farms with food service providers. Carlisle’s first purchase consisted of 11 acres of carrots grown at the Naegelin Family Farm in the town of Lytle, near San Antonio.
“We didn’t really mention it to any of our customers,” he remembers. “But people noticed immediately. The carrots tasted so much better, right down to the texture. They wanted to know what we’d done. So we began doing a little education here and there.”
When Meyer heard what his friend was doing, his first thought was wow. “I knew there were trendy Ivy League schools that had their own farms,” he says, “and Brigham Young University has its own dairy. But now I could see it was moving bigger. I had read the stories about the chemicals found in peoples’ bodies, the pesticides...and I wanted to do what Scott had done.”
By fall 2006, Meyer had partnered with SFC to serve Central Texas organic produce on Wednesdays at all four UT dining halls. Soon afterward, he celebrated National Campus Sustainability Day with an outdoor event that introduced students to local farmers and their wares. Last October, he held a Local Harvest Dinner, with a menu that expanded beyond produce into bison, cheese, pecans and more.
“I still remember visiting one of our salad bars and seeing local cherry tomatoes,” he says. “They tasted so sweet. It was exciting.”
Carlisle has also expanded on his success, even hosting a farmers market at a hospital several times each year. Imagine such developments at hospitals and college cafeterias—two settings once known mainly for mystery meat and a pervasive smell of steam table. In Austin, it was a revolution. Although the Scotts are neither the first nor the only food-service directors who’ve moved in this direction, they exert a huge influence. Meyer’s dining facilities handled 3.5 million “food transactions” in 2006. In terms of meals served alone, the Scotts have been as influential as Alice Waters.
But, Meyer says, “there are issues. We have to plan meals in advance—right now, for instance, we’re talking about menus for spring, and that’s months away,” he says. “Then, if I tell people we’re going to have fresh greens, and they don’t show up, I’m in trouble.”
Acts of God that beset local farmers affect the Scotts directly. Spring rains in 2007 gave way to near crop-failure later that summer, a time when the Scotts were counting on abundant tomatoes and peppers. And produce that’s ripe when it’s shipped spoils easily, requiring chefs to roll with the punches in a way industrial kitchens don’t often anticipate.
“Every month we have a Texas food focus for one week,” Meyer explains. “We were supposed to do spinach but none was available. We just worked around it, moving spinach a few months later.”
If that takes effort, so does factoring in, and justifying, the extra costs.
“At first I thought, hey, we’re gonna cut out the middle man,” Meyer says. “But I really had to pay more.”
“Around 40 percent,” Carlisle agrees. “But it’s really such a tiny percentage of our budget. And it’s fresh, so you adjust. You find produce that holds longer—beets and potatoes, for instance. It becomes a way of doing business.”
One recent afternoon, prior to lunch, Meyer gave Carlisle a tour of the food outlets located inside the Jester Center—including the “all-you-care-to-eat” upstairs cafeteria the Wall Street Journal once identified as serving the worst college food in the nation. But that was before homemade pizzas began circling in giant convection ovens, the kitchen staff learned to make sushi, and Sunday night dinners featuring pecan-crusted tilapia, New York strip steaks cooked to order, and lobster tails made their appearance downstairs.
Jester’s first floor contains no less than 16 food shops and markets, and Meyer likes to pop in and out of all of them, starting with the Jester City Market, where Coke and Red Bull share space with fresh wraps and salads. He ducks into the 40 Acres Bakery, breezes past the Wendy’s outlet—the only outside food source in the complex—and analyses products at the brand new Jesta’ Healthy Place.
“People were telling us we didn’t have enough healthy food,” Meyer says. “We listened, and now everything in here is either vegetarian, vegan or certified organic.”
Behind him, Carlisle scrutinizes an organic nutrition bar. “Always read the first four ingredients,” he recites. “If you can’t pronounce it, don’t eat it.” Though Carlisle grew up in small-town West Virginia eating from his family’s garden, he’s an equal-opportunity diner who’s not about to give up hot dogs and cheeseburgers. Still, he says, “my eyes have really been opened to new ways of eating.”
On to the second floor cafeteria, a crowded food metropolis with a selection so vast as to be almost disorienting. It offers the comfort food students enjoy and expect—chicken-fried steak, pizza, mac-and-cheese, a baked potato bar and even a chili and queso station, because, as Meyer says, “this is Central Texas, and someone might want chili-cheese fries.” And he loves to show off the waffle iron that stamps out perfect Bevos. The salad bar is more of a salad empire and the Healthy Choice deli is, well, healthy. Meyer even sponsors ethnic food nights designed to expose diners to foreign foods—most recently, Indian. A vegetarian could find something good to eat at any station.
And mixed seamlessly into almost every food line—at Jester and two other campus cafeterias—is fresh produce, most, but not all, from the Naegelin Farm. Diners shouldn’t count on this food to appear every day of the week, but it’s becoming more and more common, and it’s not hard to find. Signs at most stations point out anything local being served.
“If it’s farm direct, we want people to notice,” Meyer says, just before inhaling the aroma of a local roasted sweet potato. “You can really tell the difference.”