Dining Services compensates for ongoing drought
A nationwide drought that began last summer continues to adversely affect the St. Louis community, including local food suppliers to Washington University’s Dining Services. The University, which sources approximately 20 percent of its food from local vendors, has contended with increasing food prices for the past year.
With an increasingly limited selection in crops, Dining Services has shifted to purchasing from different sources and has adjusted menu offerings in accordance with availability, looking to alternative crop options.
Executive Chef John Griffiths has led efforts to ensure that standards in food offerings continue to be up to par.
“Under these drought conditions, we are innovating to ensure quality and taste with whatever is available,” he said. “We try to be creative and use foods in different ways such as switching up primary and side dish ingredients.”
General Manager of Dining Services David Murphy highlighted the importance of communication with the University during the process of accommodating rising food prices.
“We always want to see how we can improve the food offered,” Griffiths said. “What can be changed, what works and what didn’t? So far, the methods seem to be working. There hasn’t been a negative response to changes in food, which is a testament to the chefs who work to keep up the quality.”
Despite the rises in food costs for the University, Murphy said that meal prices for students have remained constant.
“[The rise in prices] has not been carried along to the students,” he said. “We look at ways to continue to bring quality production while not being an inefficient financial model.”
To offset rising costs in food prices, Murphy said the University must lessen the usage of disposable products on campus. One component of Dining Services’ model to combat the price increases is the reusable, plastic “Eco To-Go” container, with which students receive a $0.10 discount with each purchase.
For local farms, however, the negative effects of the drought have been felt at full force.
“The local vendors, particularly the smaller crop farms, have been hit the hardest,” Murphy said.
Shortages of water and feed mean limitations on the quantity and variety small farms are able to offer. One local supplier to the University is Missouri cattle farm Rain Crow Ranch.
“The drought has hit a lot of us farmers hard,” President of Rain Crow Ranch Peter Whisnant said. “The effects of the drought started early on, and we felt them throughout the year.”
One major effect has been a shortage of hay. During the early spring, farmers cut their hay to store for the winter months, but Rain Crow Ranch was forced to tap into its supply half a year earlier than intended.
“We only had 50 percent of the hay that we usually get,” Whisnant said. “The farm ultimately had to look to external sources.”
Citing the cost of hay as an indicator of changes in price, Whisnant said that the local price of hay by the bale is now $100, compared to $15 in 2010.
“This is double the problem because the hay cutting wasn’t great to begin with,” he said.
Griffiths acknowledged the drastic changes in conditions that local farms now face.
“They all face a day-to-day impact,” he said. “Because there is only so much farmers can charge for crops, there is a definite force to be felt on their crop yield.”
Despite these challenges, Dining Services continues to purchase from local farms for reasons of fresh quality, sustainability and local business relationships.
“We are always searching to buy more local products,” Griffiths said. “We want to encourage the products of local businesses.”