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URBANA, IL – The tasty slices of pizza students will be eating this fall in University of Illinois dining halls will be as close to “locally grown” as most restaurants can get, with many of the ingredients grown right on campus.

Not only do students get to enjoy these home-grown products, but students are involved in every step of the process—from growing the tomatoes and wheat, to the processing and milling after harvest, and even developing the recipes.  

The Illinois Sustainable Food Project is a partnership between the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, the Department of Crop Science’s Sustainable Student Farm, and University Housing Dining Services. 

With over $1 million in funding from the U of I Student Sustainability Committee over the last four years for the project, and recent renovations to the FSHN Pilot Processing Plant, the project has allowed for new opportunities in both teaching and producing consumable food. 

And big plans to expand the project’s teaching and research opportunities are ahead. 

“The aspect of processing those products from produce grown at the Sustainable Student Farm for the dining halls is one-of-a-kind among peer institutions,” says Brian Jacobson, assistant director of Food and Bioprocessing Pilot Plant operations. “It’s rare to see this level of processing and production happening on a university campus.”

It all started in 2013 with tomatoes grown on the Sustainable Student Farm, when the project received its first SSC grant. “It was simple, from the perspective of food safety, which is something we were concerned with upfront. Now, we can do any tomato-based sauce,” Jacobson says.

The project was immediately successful and, by 2015, Jacobson says they were able to provide 25 percent of all the pizza sauce served on campus. Assuming the tomato harvest is good this year, the project hopes to provide 100 percent of the pizza sauce on campus. 

In 2016, Jacobson said they were able to add milling and grinding equipment, everything they would need to make wheat- or corn-based flours. It was Bill Davison from U of I Extension who prompted this addition to the project. “It’s something Bill is very passionate about, and there are a ton of others who think this is a phenomenally important thing that we understand better, and there has been a large push for local grains throughout the country not just the Midwest,” he says. 

Through the milling project, they are able to provide not only the flour that is used by dining services, but also a tremendous amount of data on products and recipes that can be used with the grains that are grown at the U of I, even beyond the campus. “We tie that in with the breeding program here, so we know that this variety will grow well in Illinois or this climate, and we determine what types of products it can be made into,” Jacobson says, adding that they will be using the flour to provide dining halls with a tasty pizza crust that students helped to develop.

A few other products that students are working on include orange and blue tortilla chips made from orange and blue varieties of corn being grown by crop sciences, as well as a student-developed hot sauce, using produce from the Sustainable Student Farm, that will be available in in dispensers in university dining halls this fall.

Aside from the project’s uniqueness, and the delicious products, it has served as a model of sustainable food production.

“For one, it helps the farm develop another market for their products. For FSHN, processing large quantities of food to teach our students is very expensive,” Jacobson explains. “You can’t process 2,000 pounds of tomatoes into something and explain to students how it works unless you have something to do with those 2,000 pounds of tomatoes. Otherwise you’re buying all that and just throwing it into the garbage, and it’s just not fiscally sustainable. 

“You can’t teach full start-to-finish processing techniques without having a program set up for what to do with the outputs.”

Jacobson also says that before, students observed how equipment such as an industrial-sized pressure cooker worked just by watching as water was heated—just a demonstration. “Now, they have an actual process with real food and real conditions they can learn from. So it provides us as a department a really good educational piece to our students.” 

The project also benefits the university’s dining services in that it helps them to meet mandates around local food procurement set forth in the Illinois Climate Action Plan. “For dining, it’s a huge benefit. The university dining team, are just some of the most outstanding people in the world, and are extremely supportive of the educational mission. They understand how important this is from a sustainability and environmental impact piece, and it’s something they want to do regardless of those other pieces that are there.

“It fits all three of us—Crop Sci, FSHN, and dining—really well,” Jacobson adds.   

SSC funds have covered the costs of purchasing nearly all the processing equipment needed for these projects. The ongoing portion of the project is funded through dining, who is receiving the product from project members. “With the pizza sauce, for example, dining pays us a fee to process it, they pay the farm for the tomatoes, and those funds pay for student internships, maintenance on the equipment, small supplies, etc.,” Jacobson explains. “We intelligently bought equipment all the way through that was very flexible, so if we wanted to process something else off the farm, we wouldn’t have to purchase other equipment. The projects, after receiving the one-time capital from the SSC, become self-supporting.”

A new grant in 2017 will help the project expand to processing cold-pressed fruit and vegetable juices using produce from the U of I Multifunctional Woody Perennial Polyculture project. Eventually the hope is to offer grab-n-go juice products in university dining convenience stores. 

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