By Ben SuazoCOPY CHIEF
This week, Lackmann tested students’ appetites by adding a sustainable and humane food option on campus.
A temporary kiosk in the Student Center began offering Niman Ranch-raised pork, as Dining Services looked to measure student interest in a meal option that could become a regular offering.
Kevin Kenny, executive chef for Dining Services at the University, described this week’s food option as a platform to promote and offer sustainable food to students.
“It’s coming into the East Coast a bit. From a college level, it’s more of a hot topic, so it’s coming up [in New York],” Kenny said at a Nov. 20 Food Committee meeting where the test site was discussed.
The Food Committee is a Lackmann-initiated, open meeting where students meet and discuss dining hall news and concerns with Lackmann’s on-site directors and managers of Dining Services.
Kenny said that a steady Niman Ranch meal option in the dining hall would not replace any of Lackmann’s current offerings.
After the University returned from Thanksgiving’s short break, the test site was opened Monday in the Student Center and has been available during limited evening hours. Options have included pulled pork and a second, rotating meat option, which included pork ribs on Tuesday and sausage on Wednesday. The meat can be served in a bread roll with a side of salad, mashed potatoes or coleslaw.
Niman Ranch, Inc. is a ranch-turned-umbrella corporation that raises hogs and cattle for consumption following sustainable food practices. The pork and beef that are sold with the Niman Ranch label are advertised as being raised in outdoor, unconfined pastures on a natural diet.
According to the ranch’s website, the company seeks to practice environmentally sustainable conditions by raising its animals in less dense settings and in fewer numbers, which produces less manure.
“Farm managers typically store liquefied waste in huge pits called waste lagoons that can be one story deep and acres wide,” the website’s FAQ page said. “Even under the best circumstances, these lagoons are enormous sources of pollution … that leaches to groundwater, contaminates air, and can spill and run off to surface waters.”
Niman Ranch partners with other sustainable farms that raise livestock and poultry. The company claims that all of its subsidiary and partner farms follow its sustainable and humane livestock-raising practices.
Among the businesses that buy from Niman Ranch is Chipotle Mexican Grille on Hempstead Turnpike. A manager of the restaurant claimed on the phone that the Hempstead location’s pork comes from the ranch.
Like all businesses that aspire for humane and positive brand names, Niman Ranch is not without its controversies. In 2009, The San Francisco Chronicle reported that company founder Bill Niman said he no longer believed that the company was maintaining the sustainable and humane standards he had aspired to keep standard.
Niman gave up his place in the company’s board of directors at the start of 2009, but in 2007 he had already criticized the company’s CEO, Jeff Swain, for changing some of the cattle-raising processes that had helped to earn the ranch its reputation.
“The bottom line on this point is that we once had the strictest feed standards in the industry as well as the highest humane animal treatment protocols,” Niman said in a company memo, as reported by The San Francisco Chronicle.
Among the changes that The San Francisco Chronicle reported was a cost-cutting decision to move Niman Ranch’s cattle into commercial feedlots near the end of their lives. Feedlots are locations where the animals are specially fed immediately prior to being sent to a slaughterhouse. At the time of its founding in 1977, all of the beef that was raised by Niman Ranch was prepared at independent feedlots that were off-site. But not long after, the ranch began using its own feedlots and was able to guarantee a natural diet for nearly all of the cattle’s lives.
Molly Tette, a senior and major in business management, tried the pork ribs that Lackmann offered on Tuesday. Although Tette had not previously heard of Niman Ranch and was not familiar with its sustainability mission, she said that she was able to enjoy the meal because it represented something different.
“It was good. It wasn’t anything special. It definitely was a nice change-up from the usual spread – usually I rotate through five of the same meals,” said Tette.
In general, Tette said she is a supporter of companies that provide more considerate conditions in raising livestock.
“It doesn’t usually cross my mind unless they advertise it,” said Tette. “If a company advertises that they treat animals humanely, that’s a plus, I’d want to buy that.”
And what will it cost students? At the pilot site this week, a sandwich with pulled pork and a small side of coleslaw cost $6.49, or $7.05 with tax. The Niman Ranch offerings from a more permanent meal option could differ.
“The price is reasonable – anytime you have gourmet-style food, it’s going to be higher,” Kenny said. “We didn’t raise the price too much because we didn’t want to scare people away.”