Mark Kenny, left, with chef Gordon Cooledge from Hospitality Services. Photo by Laura Berman, GreenFuse Photos

Do you know where that apple you had with your lunch today came from? Mark Kenny probably does. And chances are, that apple traveled no more than 200 km to get to you.

Kenny’s the purchasing coordinator for Hospitality Services and he’s working hard to bring more local produce into the restaurants on campus.

“We actually have a detailed sustainability plan on our website,” says Kenny, “and it includes using more local foods as one of the strategies. We are now up to about 45 per cent local produce in season.” Some comes from the U of G research farms (including all the honey used on campus); many other items are purchased at the Elmira Produce Auction Co-operative (EPAC), where U of G is a major buyer. The amount bought from EPAC has doubled since 2009.

This commitment to finding food close to home has earned U of G’s Hospitality Services one of five Ontario’s Local Foods Champions awards, announced Feb. 22. The press release, from the Friends of the Greenbelt Foundation, praised Hospitality Services for supporting the local economy and educating consumers both on and off campus about the benefits of buying local food. Incidentally, another of Hospitality’s suppliers, Don’s Produce, was also awarded the Ontario Local Food Champion award.

Not content to rest on his laurels, Kenny, on behalf of the University, applied for and was awarded a grant from the Friends of the Greenbelt Foundation to build a produce processing facility in the basement of Creelman Hall. “The idea is that we can now buy more local produce, process it right here, and have it available to use through the winter,” he explains. He is contracting with local farmers to provide cold storage for some vegetables; other produce may be frozen.

“This saves money for us because we don’t have to bring in higher-cost produce in the winter from the U.S.,” he says. It also helps the local farmers who can increase their sales to the University.

The processing facility will be in operation by the end of March, although they will not be processing large amounts of food until later in the year.

Unlike many universities, which contract their cafeteria services out to a catering company, U of G’s Hospitality Services is able to use its own recipes. This means plenty of opportunities to incorporate local foods, and a greater variety of menu items. “We have talented chefs here with many different backgrounds, so we’re able to offer authentic ethnic foods and other unique meals,” says Kenny. He’s even brought the chefs along with him to the auction so they can see what’s available.

He’s also learned that an essential part of buying local is building relationships with local producers. Kenny is active with the Guelph-Wellington Local Food Committee, which helps to connect farmers, restaurants, institutions and consumers, and promotes the Taste Real ~ From the Ground Up campaign.

He’s also making more use of social media to build connections between producers and consumers. “Farmers just want to talk about their produce and how great it is, and people like to see the faces of the farmers and know where their food comes from,” he says. “I think we can do more of that here. We recently featured local Thatcher Farms sausage on our menus, for example, and used social media to let customers on and off campus know about what we’re doing.”

Students today are busy, he acknowledges, but they do care about their food. He says he and the entire team at Hospitality Services are proud that the U of G program has been rated the number one campus food service in Canada in the Globe and Mail’s university report for the past nine years.

“We have to stay fresh and innovative, though, so we’re always looking for ways to improve,” he says.