Self-Op Dining: A Year in Review

Tue, 22 Oct 2013 15:39:00 CDT  — by: Clesi Bennett, C'13, Sustainability Post-Baccalaureate Fellow

rick_wright_300Self-Op…what does that really mean? And what does it mean for McClurg Dining Hall? I sat down with McClurg Executive Chef Rick Wright last week to find out just this and how the last year has changed the dining experience for Sewanee students.

Having a self-operational dining hall means that McClurg is University-run and no longer run by a food service company. McClurg employees are now University employees; they receive better benefits and retirement packages than before. Going self-op has also given Chef Wright more flexibility in purchasing where he focuses on quality, nutrition, and satisfaction; profit is no longer the main driver. Sewanee also no longer has to adhere to set menus and recipes but can design menus to serve food that fits the needs and tastes of the students.

How does this tie into sustainability?

mushrooms_smallBecause Chef Wright has more control in his purchasing decisions, he can purchase more local and organic foods than before to decrease the amount of oil used, emissions created, and water used in conventional growing and transportation. He is determined to get more real, whole foods in the dining hall and not just products that are an “idea of food.” Most of the local food in McClurg consists of produce and eggs purchased through The South Cumberland Food Hub, defining local as an 80-mile radius. Other local foods served in McClurg come from outside of the South Cumberland Food Hub such as beef from Sequatchie Cove Farm and mushrooms from Sewanee alum Drake Schutt’s (C’13) farm, Fiery Fungi in Tracy City. Chef Wright also purchases seasonal produce from farms within a 250-mile radius, fitting most’s definition of local. However, the most local of the food Wright receives comes from right on campus: the University Farm managed by Gina Raicovich. Last school year, the University Farm produced 1,000 pounds of produce as well as 20 head of steer that went to the dining hall. This academic year, produce and herbs from the University Farm are already rolling in and the two Sewanee pigs were used in the Family Weekend bar-b-que. Before going self-op, this local food in McClurg would not have been possible due to strict purchasing guidelines and rules.  

How does this benefit students and the Sewanee community?

salad_bar_smallerWhen I asked Chef Wright this question he immediately commented that students are now eating more nutritious, fresher food. Students are also able to serve themselves, picking serving sizes that fit their liking. Since these switches, Wright has needed to almost double the amount of produce purchasing.

Going self-op has allowed Wright to engage more with the students. He has gotten involved with a student-driven group, Food with Friends, to serve hot meals to those in local communities who would otherwise not have access to one. In October of 2013, Food with Friends served two meals, feeding 300 people. Wright is also working with Sewanee’s School of Theology on a food justice program called Food, Faith, and Farm. It is a goal of Chef Wright’s to build community outreach into the dining hall.

girl_eating_food_smallerHigh employee morale has also been a result of the self-op switch, strengthening McClurg employees’ relationships with the rest of the University community, as they feel truly integrated now and not just a part of the food service company. Because of increased flexibility in recipes and purchasing, McClurg employees can express more creativity in the kitchen. Chef Wright has devised a training program where employees can work their way up to first cook, much like in a restaurant kitchen, giving them more freedom with menus, a higher salary, better benefits, and present them with a real future in food service. It is the tighter, more closed-loop relationship between the consumers (students), the producers (farmers), and the McClurg team that has been the best thing about going self-operation according to Chef Wright.

It was clear talking to Chef Wright that he is a true champion for sustainability. He plans on expanding his purchasing of local foods when the production is available and continuing to work more with various community outreach projects. The McClurg team also actively supports events that built and promote a sustainable food system.

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