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OPN Connect Newsletter 292 · October 27, 2022

SoCal College Features 30-40% Organic Produce in Dining Services


When Executive Chef Travis Ellis started working at Pomona College Dining Services seven years ago, organic produce was not a big part of the school’s foodservice operation.

Travis Ellis, Executive Chef, Pomona College Dining Services

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However, within the first several months of his tenure, the Le Cordon Bleu-trained chef and the rest of the Pomona Dining Services team decided it was time to start sourcing a more significant amount.

Back then (in 2015), Ellis said he’d noticed that organic food was a trend that “was becoming more permanent.” He’d seen the category cropping up with increasing frequency in the trade publications he read for work, as well as in the offerings at his local grocery stores.

“It was partially for quality and partially for sustainability and for the environment,” said Ellis of his and his team’s reasons for wanting to include more organic produce in the SoCal college’s dining services. 

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Pomona was eventually able to establish a close working relationship with Nature’s Produce, an LA-area foodservice wholesaler that has a special program offering local—and often organic—produce from the famed Santa Monica Farmers Market. (Some of the organic growers available via this program include Garcia Organics, Kenter Canyon Farms, McGrath Family Farm, Cuyama Orchards, and Tutti Frutti Farms.)

“It was partially for quality and partially for sustainability and for the environment,” said Ellis of his and his team’s reasons for wanting to include more organic produce in the SoCal college’s dining services. 

“Pomona College participates in our seasonal, local, sustainable, and organic modality,” shared Michael Feuerstein, director of sales and VP of operations at Nature’s Produce. “Pomona … tailors its foodservice program around the offerings from some of the best [local and organic] farmers on a direct basis through Nature's Produce. … I have even organized a farm-to-table event where we had a setup similar to [a] farmers market on [the Pomona] campus where students purchased food directly at the tables. We offered some education about the location of the farms, farming techniques used, and advised how the [produce] at the mini farmers market setup was the actual product offered by their campus foodservice.”

“At Pomona College Dining, we are focused on supporting local farms … 150 miles or less from our campus in Claremont,” Ellis said. “We try to order from Nature’s Produce’s Farmers Market section first, and then anything that we can't get through there, or can't get the quantity that we need, we’ll get through Nature's Produce’s other offerings.”

Today, about 30-40 percent of the produce used in Pomona’s Dining Services is organic.

Ellis said this includes most of Pomona’s salad bar items—"your lettuces, baby spinach, dark leafy green-type stuff.” He also said that whenever possible, he tries to source organic tomatoes when they’re in season, and he estimates that about 20 percent of Pomona’s bulk carrots are organic.

“Pomona College participates in our seasonal, local, sustainable, and organic modality.” - Michael Feuerstein

Some of the meals currently offered by Pomona Dining Services that incorporate organic produce include: 

  • Soba Noodle Stir Fry with Wild Mushrooms and Black Kale (organic shitake mushrooms and organic Black Tuscan kale).
  • Mustard Glazed Carrot and Parsnip (organic jumbo carrots and organic parsnips).
  • Farm Veggie Pizza (organic red, yellow, and green bell peppers).
  • Tomato and Burrata Sandwich on Ciabatta (organic tomatoes).

When it comes to fruit, Ellis said clementines, tangerines, pears, and apples are all examples of organic items that Pomona offers at times. On occasion, he said Pomona also sources local organic berries (strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, and blackberries).

While Pomona Dining Services does plan to continue increasing the amount of organic produce it sources in the coming years, Ellis said going 100 percent organic is unlikely.

“Cost is the biggest prohibitor for us,” he said. “Organic just costs so much more than regular produce.”

“At Pomona College Dining, we are focused on supporting local farms … 150 miles or less from our campus in Claremont.” - Travis Ellis

Despite organic produce’s increasing popularity (and therefore volume), Ellis said he hasn’t seen much downward price pressure over the last couple years, due to supply chain issues and inflation. On top of those factors, he noted that organic produce has “lower yields in the fields—and that's always going to make it more expensive than the non-organic product.”

When Pomona first started sourcing more organic produce back in 2015, Ellis said there was little to no demand for organic food voiced by the college students and staff—but that’s definitely changed more recently.

Travis Ellis, Executive Chef, Pomona College Dining Services

“‘Organic’ and ‘sustainable’ are things we now hear every year coming from the staff, faculty, and students about what they want to see on the menus,” he said. “They care about eating a little bit healthier, getting a little bit less of the chemicals in their bodies.”

“The more people that want organics, the more I’ll put it out there,” Ellis said. “I think we're seeing a trend of more students going to more of a flexitarian diet—and that will drive our organic produce percentage up even higher.”

“‘Organic’ and ‘sustainable’ are things we now hear every year coming from the staff, faculty, and students about what they want to see on the menus. They care about eating a little bit healthier, getting a little bit less of the chemicals in their bodies.” - Travis Ellis

Ellis said the increased demand for organics has helped justify the higher cost, adding that “Pomona has their own sustainability goals, so that helps support our organic budget as well.”

In addition to organic produce, Pomona also sources a number of other organic items, including coffee, yogurt, chicken, hot sauce, and some plant-based milks.

Ellis said he’d definitely encourage other colleges to source more organic produce—and other organic offerings.

“I think we're seeing a trend of more students going to more of a flexitarian diet—and that will drive our organic produce percentage up even higher.” - Travis Ellis

“If they can source organic items, and it works for their budgets, I would recommend going that way,” he said. “I think it's just the healthier way to live. It's better for your body, and if you can afford to do it, why not? I mean it's no less work on the kitchen side of it; it's not adding extra work to your job or more hours, so when you can get any organic produce, why not?”

When asked what sourcing advice he’d give to other college foodservice operations, Ellis said he’d suggest starting small: “If organic produce isn’t available from your produce companies—which it should be at this point—then hit the farmers markets. Start out with a daily special of something organic to test demand, and just see how you can continue to grow it from there.”

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