College cafeteria food is an American cultural icon, a punchline to campus jokes, and a badge of intestinal fortitude for the countless among us who suffered four years of undercooked and greasy everything.
Which is why it would be easy to mistake St. Olaf’s campus cuisine — with its local meats and organic produce and stations for handmade pizzas and vegetarian or vegan fare — for something closer to a neighborhood bistro.
There’s a news hook here — the latest Princeton Review survey of college students named St. Olaf’s food fourth-best in the nation (Gustavus, by the way, with its in-house food service, placed a commendable 10th).
But the real story is a food-service company named Bon Appétit and its leader in St. Olaf, Peter Abrahamson, who started as executive chef and was recently promoted to general manager.
Fresh food, purchased locally
Bon Appétit’s mission is to provide fresh food grown sustainably, and purchased locally whenever possible. Abrahamson fulfills that mission with every meal, all 32,000 of them served each week that school is in session.
“Our process for writing the menu each week starts with calling all our local providers and produce farmers and saying, ‘What do you have, what’s available?’ ” Abrahamson said.
Abrahamson works with a variety of local producers, which includes hitting the road once a week or so to visit some of them and discuss what’s worked and what hasn’t.
That includes one producer who’s closest to home: STOGROW, the St. Olaf student-run farm (that acronym stands for the Saint Olaf Garden Research and Organic Works). St. Olaf is one of the few schools in the nation that serve food grown by its students.
“The students came to us about four years ago and said we want to start a small farm, but we don’t have anywhere to sell our stuff,” Abrahamson recalled. “My general manager and I stared at each other, and then said, ‘We’ll buy everything you grow.’ “
Individual attention to students
Abrahamson also works individually with students who have food allergies or other diet restrictions, and in some cases the kitchen prepares each of those students’ meals individually. He also consults with students interested in honing their diets, like athletes looking to regulate their energy during workouts and performances.
There’s one question Abrahamson gets more often than any other: Is his approach more expensive?
Sure. But there’s not a fair comparison, Abrahamson said, because of several variables, ranging from the food’s freshness and quality to St. Olaf’s ability to support the local economy and give students insight into local agriculture.
There are certain bottom-line bonuses to buying local, Abrahamson said, including saving money on shipping costs and the ability to alter the menu as needed to fit budgetary constraints.
But the best bonus, he said, is an even split: He gets to provide great food to a grateful campus (the Princeton Review recognition has become perennial) while working face-to-face with the folks who grow it, cultivating a lasting connection among farmers and students.
“It’s 50 percent the food, and 50 percent the relationship,” he said.
“It’s great we can get credit as a food service, but the kids have to be into it, and college has to support it. We’re fortunate to have that synergy.”