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UNT Dining: Farm to plate

UNT Dining: Farm to plate

Ben E. Keith Company truck driver Randy Boudreaux trundles some food boxes from the truck to Kerr Hall on Friday afternoon. Ben E. Keith Company supplies a full line of produce, frozen foods, meats, dry groceries, and refrigerated foods.

UNT Dining: Farm to plate
January 23
09:31 2014

Joshua Knopp // Senior Staff Writer

The quickest way to a student’s heart is through his or her stomach.

Before food gets there, products served at UNT cafeterias come from a myriad of locations, ranging from the campus cafeterias to various spots around the country.

“Food may not be the most important thing on campus, but if they [students] are not happy with food, then they are not happy with anything,” Executive Director of Dining Services Bill McNease said. “Our goals are the same as the university’s – student success. We simply do it through food.”

But how do apples, chicken and ice cream make it from the farm to the plate? The answer is a wide variety of in-house operations plus a hectic import infrastructure.

UNT Associate Director of Residential Dining Peter Balabuch talks about the source of UNT cafeteria and dining hall food. Nearly all of the red meat and poultry comes from Texas and our border states. Photo by Zixian Chen / Senior Staff Photographer

UNT Associate Director of Residential Dining Peter Balabuch talks about the source of UNT cafeteria and dining hall food. Nearly all of the red meat and poultry comes from Texas and our border states. Photo by Zixian Chen / Senior Staff Photographer

On-site cooking 

Since McNease was hired five years ago, UNT Dining Services has been trying to make the majority of student’s food in house.

Since spring 2012, the Bruce Hall cafeteria has been producing its own pasta and Kerr Hall’s cafeteria has been making its own ice cream. Dining Services has also been working to complete a bakery in the defunct Clark Hall cafeteria. When completed, every pastry on campus will come from that bakery.

“The ice cream is very, very basic,” said Peter Balabuch, associate director of Resident Dining. “But in being basic it’s about having quality ingredients.”

The ice cream starts with 14 percent milk, sugar and eggs, and is then flavored with vanilla extract. Flavoring is the last ingredient, and Balabuch said that’s part of what’s unique about UNT ice cream — apart from chocolate and vanilla extract, they don’t use traditional flavoring.

Strawberry flavor, for instance, comes from strawberries that have been put in sugar and aged overnight. Chocolate ice cream also uses cocoa.

McNease said this method of making ice cream helps eliminate waste.

“Many times whatever we overproduce for dessert on one day goes into the ice cream the next day,” he said.

The bakery isn’t up and running yet, but personnel are in place and currently operating the equipment. Master chef Bill Hunter said they hope to have it up and running in March. Once it’s operational, Hunter said they’ll be producing all sorts of bread products, including doughnuts.

Master baker Bill Hunter for the Clark Hall bakery. Clark Hall's kitchen is being converted from grill to bakery to produce baked goods for UNT students. Photo by Zixian Chen / Senior Staff Photographer

Master baker Bill Hunter for the Clark Hall bakery. Clark Hall’s kitchen is being converted from grill to bakery to produce baked goods for UNT students. Photo by Zixian Chen / Senior Staff Photographer

After more than 30 years of experience as a chef, including six years running his own dessert business, Hunter said building a bakery from the ground up drew him in.

“It was a terrific opportunity. We’re setting up a central bakery where there has never been a central bakery before,” he said. “That is one of the more exciting things, is to take essentially an empty shell and turn it into a thriving, ongoing business.”

McNease said the baked goods will be available at campus retailers, as well as in the cafeterias.

Dining partners for imports

Balabuch said the joke around the office is that the next step is for everyone in Dining Services to become farmers. While he didn’t rule out the possibility, UNT has been partnering with Ben E. Keith, a distribution company based just west of Interstate-35, for years. This company brings meats and produce to UNT.

Dining Services consultant Bryan Thomas said the company has been giving scholarships to the hospitality and management program for more than 10 years, and has hired several of the program’s graduates.

Thomas handles procuring meat for UNT. He said that meats don’t consistently come from one place because supply is constantly changing. Beef, for instance, can come from plants as near as Amarillo or as far as Nebraska, depending on the time of year, global demand and the cut of beef.

UNT Associate Director of Dining Services Shohreh Sparks talks about the food sourcing relationship with a local vendor, The Ben E. Keith Company, which is a distributor of foodservice products. The vast majority of all of UNT’s food comes to UNT via the BEK warehouse in Fort Worth, TX. Photo by Zixian Chen / Senior Staff Photographer

UNT Associate Director of Dining Services Shohreh Sparks talks about the food sourcing relationship with a local vendor, The Ben E. Keith Company, which is a distributor of foodservice products. The vast majority of all of UNT’s food comes to UNT via the BEK warehouse in Fort Worth, TX. Photo by Zixian Chen / Senior Staff Photographer

He said UNT Dining Services always requests local meats, but it’s not always possible.

“Depends on how many cattle came through the slaughtering house and how many they purchased,” he said. “A lot of times it’s not always feasible to do it, but we try to do the best we can at it.”

Thomas said he gets pork from Farmland Foodservice, located in Kansas City, more often than not but occasionally purchases locally grown pork products.

For many other types of meat, including chicken, bacon, hot dogs and pepperoni, Thomas goes through Tyson Foods. Jaren Cunningham with Tyson said they source most of their chicken from contracted farms in Arkansas and their bacon from Wright Brand bacon, which is located in Vernon, Texas.

Produce market changes regularly

UNT also goes through Ben E. Keith for fruits, vegetables, eggs and dairy, but those products go through a different handler — produce category manager Mike Endsley.

Endsley said he also tries to buy locally, but Texas isn’t the most fertile state in the nation and doesn’t have very good agricultural infrastructure.

“Typically, the basic infrastructure is not there for growing of fruits and vegetables in Texas,” he said, citing the Salinas Valley in California as a counterexample. “They’ve got seed companies. They’ve got all kinds of universities doing improvements in growing practices and water conservation. They’ve got box manufacturers that are specific to the vegetable.”

As of Jan. 21, just grapefruits and cabbages come from Texas. Onions will be coming locally starting mid-February and running through March, and red potatoes will start growing from May to June.

In terms of current cafeteria produce, apples come from Washington, oranges  from California, lettuce from Arizona, squash, cucumbers and peppers from Mexico. Tomatoes come from Florida, russet potatoes from Idaho and Colorado and red potatoes from Minnesota and North Dakota. Strawberries come from either California or Mexico, depending on the weather, Endsley said.

Stock controller for UNT Mark Madlock carries some food boxes to Kerr Hall on Friday afternoon. Photo by ZIxian Chen / Senior Staff Photographer

Stock controller for UNT Mark Madlock carries some food boxes to Kerr Hall on Friday afternoon. Photo by ZIxian Chen / Senior Staff Photographer

Eggs and milk, on the other hand, are almost always local. Endsley said eggs come from various houses depending on the time of year. Right now, they come from East Texas. Milk comes from Schepps Dairy, whose parent company, Dean Foods, is based in Dallas.

He said in Texas, the only infrastructure in place for growing, handling and distributing produce was demand. If people need a fruit, he said, they’ll get it somehow, but there hasn’t been enough demand to make local, large-scale farming ventures profitable. Endsley said keeping produce local is a game of hit-or-miss.

“Basically, we try to have a good understanding of what a local guy will have, how much he will have and when it will be available,” he said. “Beyond that, you would have your backup plan.”

Feature photo: Ben E. Keith Company truck driver Randy Boudreaux  trundles some food boxes from the truck to Kerr Hall on Friday afternoon. Ben E. Keith Company supplies a full line of produce, frozen foods, meats, dry groceries, and refrigerated foods. Photo by Zixian Chen / Senior Staff Photographer 

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