Local agriculture experiences welcome growth at Hendrick House

Alisa DeMarco’s first year at Hendrick House has been marked with huge strides towards more sustainable food options and integration more local foods on campus. Hendrick House has been a privately owned residence hall on the University of Illinois’ Urbana-Champaign campus since 1948, with a strong family tradition behind the management team.

The efforts to become more sustainable at Hendrick House picked up serious steam in 2009, when their kitchen and dining areas were renovated. The new space received LEED Gold certification. Aside from the construction, Hendrick House also participates in a cooking oil recycling program, no longer use trays for their food, and buys locally grown produce.

Alisa DeMarco joined the Hendrick House team in January of this year, and has been chiefly responsible for a lot of the local produce purchasing for the residence hall. As the head chef at Prairie Food Farms, DeMarco has had plenty of time to get to know the local farmers and where to get the best local produce.

One of the first accomplishments of the local food program was to grow an herb garden on the roof – a garden that now provides Hendrick House with 12-15 pounds of fresh herbs per week. The best part is that there’s still room to expand. Hendrick House has also forged relationships with chefs from 28 different Greek houses on campus, and through these relationships provide support and ideas of how to include more local foods in the menus offered.

Hendrick House Aims High

The five goals of HH’s local food program are:
1)   to purchase locally as much as possible
2)   continue to develop the rooftop garden and to look for more land for local farming.
3)   Investigate the potential for composting
4)   Engage the community, generate more community interest
5)   Keep the local food program at HH financially sustainable.

According to DeMarco, the main obstacles to providing larger groups (like the total UIUC campus) with a steady supply of local food isn’t just community awareness – it’s the difference between demand and available supply. “The supply line is the challenge. Illinois weather is not the easiest to farm, and there aren’t many big farms growing to sell locally.” The farms that do grow to sell locally might not be interested in whole sale arrangements either. Local farmers also prefer to sidestep the contractual middleman and to sell their product directly, delivering a fresher product.

Opportunities for the greater campus community

The important question for the UIUC campus then becomes, where will the money come from to supply local food production? Would the money need to be put up upfront, or would the money come after production? If the financial support wasn’t provided by the administration, who would provide it instead?

Typically there is a marginal price increase to acquiring local foods for menus, and when an institutional buyer like the University of Illinois looks for vendors, they utilize a purchasing system – and that system requires vendors to bid for their contract. The end result is that the best option will be selected for the cheapest price, and unfortunately, that is not often local foods. Alisa DeMarco and Hendrick House are not constrained by this purchasing system, as they are a private residence hall – privately owned and operated and not obligated to make similar vendor choices as the University of Illinois. The family owners at Hendrick House support Alisa’s vision for local foods in the menu, and through careful management of funds (for example, making fresh salad dressing rather than purchasing premade dressing, a benefit monetarily AND for local food inclusion), they are able to maximize their local food intake without costing themselves too much.

How can the University of Illinois achieve this same level of local foods on campus? What measures can the University take to minimize cost but maximize how much fresh local agriculture they can include? How would the purchasing mechanism be changed, and what impact could that have for the University budget?

Although these are difficult and involved questions, there’s an encouraging number of people becoming more interested in and responding positively to local foods.

“It used to just be a health issue, but now one of the best ways to sell local food is just the taste. Local food just tastes better, and the staff at Hendrick House will continue to provide vibrant, healthy, local meals.”