Effort Sprouts to Link Local Diners with Local Produce

By Conte, Andrew | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, April 19, 2007 | Go to article overview

Effort Sprouts to Link Local Diners with Local Produce


Conte, Andrew, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


Jessica Tallman tends to more than 7,700 heads of lettuce in a small greenhouse along the Youghiogheny River near Elizabeth.

Trays of hydroponic red romaine, green oak leaf and bibb lettuces -- among the 30 varieties she grows without a hint of soil -- lie in rows waiting to be harvested for restaurant dinner plates.

Still, there's not nearly enough to fill the salad bowls of everyone who wants to eat them.

"If we had more, it would go out the door," said Tallman, 30, of Mt. Lebanon. "(Buyers) are always saying, 'if you have more, we'll take it.' "

Allegheny East Specialty Produce, where Tallman works, is helping to lead the local emergence of a national trend to connect local growers and diners. Western Pennsylvanians have been working to bring locally grown produce, meats and dairy products to institutions such as college cafeterias.

Students at Allegheny College, Carnegie Mellon University, St. Vincent College, Washington & Jefferson College and a few other schools are eating more locally grown foods each year.

Backers of the trend -- farmers, warehousers, chefs and teachers - - hope to increase demand by educating students about the benefits of eating food from nearby farms.

By eating locally, diners help the environment by reducing the number of miles food travels by truck, support growers in their own communities and get fresher, tastier foods, proponents say.

"Schools are a great place to start the conversation, but I know for certain it doesn't stop there," said Jennifer DeHart, an environmental science professor at Allegheny College in Meadville.

A student's senior project in 2003 kicked off an effort to start bringing farmers onto campus -- first, for an annual local foods dinner, and later as a part of dining hall offerings.

DeHart and school officials are helping farmers create a cooperative, making it easier for the college to put locally grown foods on students' plates. The growers can share the expense of required product liability insurance.

Another problem is meeting the demands for locally grown, organic foods, said David Eson, Western Pennsylvania program director for the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture, a nonprofit organization.

"There's not enough food these people want to buy," he said. "There's a spike going on right now, and there's not enough capacity to take it on."

However, the local food system is starting to add capacity, Eson and others said.

Parkhurst Dining Services, in Homestead, serves students at Chatham College, Robert Morris University and Carnegie Mellon University in Allegheny County; St. …

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