The New England food system is commonly synonymous with the fishing industry. But Andy Cox, Director of Dining Services at Smith College, is focused further inland for the 2018 New England Food Vision Prize-winning project, Whole Animals for the Whole Region.
Focusing on livestock farmers, Smith (in partnership with Westfield State University and Mount Holyoke College and Amherst College) plans to purchase whole beef and pork directly from farmers in New England, as well as engage regional processors, allowing farms to sell whole animals through a single source—as opposed to their past practices of buying individual cuts through wholesalers and distributors. In addition, the team has plans to introduce nose-to-tail dining to these campus communities to reduce waste and present opportunities to engage students in discussions about the sustainability of the meat they eat.
The farms involved in the project are located in four of the six New England states, mainly work with grass-fed cows, pastured pigs, and practice holistic land management practices. As the schools commit to large volumes of whole animals, the small businesses processors that are involved will be able to slaughter and process during commonly slow periods, which enhances their capacity overall and supports them during times when they usually cannot keep workers on.
The initial interest in engaging New England meat producers and farmers grew from a perceived need: the region’s agricultural landscape is in flux, and in need of support. As a representative of Walden Local Meat Company (one of the project partners) pointed out, “This is the only region in the country where the number of farms is increasing, the average age of farmers is declining, and the size of farms is declining—all-important signs of an agricultural renaissance.” Supporting this renaissance at this moment will ensure the preservation of historical farmland and support the regional economy. “If we don’t sustain pasture from failing dairy farms in New England all of that farmland will be lost. We need to preserve the system as it is now or it will all collapse,” explained Cox, who has been able to make new connections with over half of the farms that will work on the project.
The project team believes that the connections they have made and will continue to make with farmers has been one of the most important aspects of the project so far. Being able to directly engage with the farmers themselves to understand their welfare practices and environmental stewardship, instead of communicating through retailers and distributors, has not only allowed funds to go directly to farms, it has also given the team the opportunity to cultivate relationships with farmers to easily gauge how the program is working.
As for implementing the nose-to-tail dining approach, Cox has some creative plans to use as much as the beef and pork as he possibly can. Beyond the commonly-used cuts, which he’s confident will all be used, there are plans to make stock with bones and to use special events to showcase more exotic cuts in applications such as heart pastrami or liverwurst. For example, Cox is planning to use Halloween as a time to put these “spookier” cuts on the menu because, “Halloween events are a time where people are more likely to try something out of the ordinary.” Cuts that the schools will be unable to use due to USDA restrictions, such as some offal (an animal’s internal organs), will go to secondary markets or pet food manufacturers to ensure that waste is minimized.
Processing will begin in January for the next school year. Cox is excited to introduce the concept of a sustainable diet to the campus communities involved and to demonstrate sustainable meat consumption to avoid factory farming and support local agriculture. This aligns with the New England Food Vision’s goal to promote a balanced regional diet. As Cox notes, “You don’t have to give up meat entirely you just need eat less but better meat.”